Most Popular Blog Post (Karate Pentascales!) and Updated Free Material

Hi all,

I began writing this blog way back in February of 2011. Our family had moved to Colorado the previous year and I was in the midst of rebuilding my piano studio. Our kids were enrolled in an awesome school and were making new friends and exploring new options.

The music teacher at their new school used a reward incentive when the kids were in fourth grade learning recorders – he would tie a colored ribbon to the end of their recorder when they learned each new piece. I borrowed the idea for the piano studio and it has become my most popular blog post by far. As of today, the post has generated almost 1,100 hits and has been saved over a hundred times on Pinterest since the day it was published in 2011.

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This week I updated the post by expanding the free resources. You are now able to download all the materials needed to teach all twelve major pentascales and all twelve minor pentascales. You can download both the keyboard view:

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and the staff view:

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The post contains instructions of how to use these materials.

I hope you enjoy these free materials and that your students love your fun and rewarding way to teach pentascales!

Let me know how it goes for you!


Practice Challenge

Each year I try to develop a new studio-wide challenge to reward and support my students to excel in one or more main aspects of musical development. Some of the reward challenges from previous years have been The Wall of Wow, Bead Chains, and Brag Tags.

This year my main goal was to promote healthy practice habits. My simple plan was to count and reward practice minutes throughout the entire school year (middle of August – middle of May) of piano lessons. 20160921_144109

I bought magnetic boards, drew straight lines on them and hot-glued them to the inside of the closet door; printed out and laminated keyboards to count minutes; and made magnets for each student. 20170523_142915

The plan

The simple plan was this:

1. Beginning and young students were asked to keep track of their practice sessions, or how many times (not how many minutes) they practiced.

2. Students in approximately second – eighth grade were asked to keep track of their practice minutes.

3. Students older than fifth grade were given the option of whether they would participate (most did choose to participate).

4. Students older than eighth grade did not count their practice minutes.

Younger students moved up a level (we called it leveling up 🙂 ) for every five practice sessions. They earned a prize from the prize bucket for every 25 practice sessions (or five levels on the magnet board).

Older students moved up a level for every 100 minutes they practiced. They earned a prized in 500 minute increments: 500, 1000, 1500, etc.

A special prize (Dairy Queen gift card) was awarded at the 2500 minute/125 session level.

The top of the magnet board was 4300 minutes of practice/215 practice sessions. Eight students were able to achieve that goal and received a special bag. Many of those students chose to start climbing the board again and were thus designated with a special blue ribbon.



The plan worked well. Most students were able to move up a level every week. I think it’s encouraging, motivational, and community-building for students to see the progress of their peers, which is why I always have the challenge results hanging somewhere in the studio.

Here are the stats from the end of the year:

There were seven younger/beginner students who counted their practice sessions. Collectively they practiced 753 times from mid-August to mid-May.

There were 23 students who counted their practice minutes. Together they practiced 87,555 minutes (that’s over 1,459 hours!).

Not only was the time spent practicing impressive, the results were impressive too. At the end of the year, I discussed with each student how their practicing directly improved their skills and applauded them for time well spent!

I believe it is invaluable to point out and reward practicing, or any other skill you as a teacher are seeking to improve upon in your students. When you draw attention to good behaviors, practices and skills, your students will begin to value those as well.

Brag Tags


All the students’ Brag Tags hung on a door

Each year I endeavor to come up with a new year-long incentive for students to earn rewards while completing tasks such as practicing, learning scales, etc. In the past I have used incentives such as Bead Chains and the Wall of Wow. I have found these incentives to be very rewarding and motivating for students. Because the progress of each student is kept in the studio, other students can clearly see the progress of their friends, cheer each other on and be encouraged when they see others working to complete tasks also.

This past year I found a neat classroom incentive on Pinterest called Brag Tags. I found Brag Tags to be very adaptable to what I wanted the students to accomplish that year.


One student’s collection of Brag Tags

The idea is that each student earns a tag for different tasks completed.


Practice Tags

Students could earn practice tags. For older students, the practice minutes were counted. Younger students were urged to practice five times a week and earned a tag for that. Originally I only made the 100-minute and 150-minute practice tags for the older students, but several students were practicing 200 minutes each week. One student started practicing 250 minutes a week just so she could choose the “emerald” designation!


Key Tags

Key tags were awarded for completing technical practice (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.) in the assigned key.


Miscellaneous Tags

Students could earn other tags for:

  1. Book Graduation – completing a book
  2. Note Ninja – mastering assigned notes on treble or bass clef (these were quizzed with flashcards or the app Flashnote Derby)
  3. Excellent Extra! – learning a piece on your own
  4. Metronome Master – tapping or playing the rhythm of an assigned section with the metronome
  5. Pawsome Performance – playing in a recital, concert, talent show, etc.
  6. Theory Wiz – completing assigned theory pages
  7. Happy Birthday To You – having a birthday
  8. Cool Composer – composing a piece or short melody

Each week most students earned 2-3 tags and collected many tags throughout the school year. Rewards were given for every 600 minutes of practice. Therefore, students who practiced 200 minutes per week earned rewards more quickly than students who practiced 100 minutes per week. Ribbons were added to the bottom of the practice tags when a reward was given.

At the end of the school year, students were allowed to take their Brag Tags home with them. It was fun to see the excitement as students showed their tags to parents and siblings.

I designed the tags with the use of PicMonkey. Then I printed out the tags and laminated them. The chains were necklace chains from Hobby Lobby.

It was a great incentive and reward system to use in the studio as it served the purposes of motivating students and building community.

Let me know if you try this incentive!

Piano Football

Here in Colorado we have had gorgeous weather the last few months. We’d get some snow, then be back into the 50’s and 60’s and it would feel like spring (my favorite season!) But just this past week we have been hit hard with snow. Personally I don’t mind much because I get to work from home! But sometimes the students need a little extra incentive to get to the piano and do some quality practicing. In fact, some of my students were asking to have something along the lines of the Piano Olympics from last year. Um, sure! I will do almost anything that will add extra excitement to lessons – especially this time of year!

The Piano Football idea was really borne from the fact that the student who was asking for something like the Piano Olympics really loves football. So here’s what I came up with:

20150226_092225I used a plain old manila folder to make up a playbook. The inside contains the guidelines and football field.


Here’s my pitch:

“You have been drafted to the piano football league! As a member of the team, you have certain responsibilities. First of all, you need to prepare in advance for the game. You need to learn the building blocks: the notes in treble clef and bass clef and music symbols. Secondly, you will need to attend practices (these are what you do at home). You will need to become an expert at using your fingers to produce the sound you want and use rhythms to organize those sounds. Lastly, when the practice session is finished, you need to review what happened during the practice. Did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish? What needs extra work?”

The student then thinks of a name they want for their football team – each student does this individually – they don’t form teams with other students (although that could be an interesting variation…)
20150226_092250 The goal is to to gain yards to move from the blue end zone to the red end zone. The prize is a free cone at the local Dairy Queen.20150226_092255The first section entitled “Know Your Plays” are all tested during the lesson. I use the Flashnote Derby iPad app to quiz on treble and bass clefs. I use the SightReader iPad app to test sight reading. The music symbols are printed on flashcards and sent home with the student a week in advance of the testing. 

The section titled “Workouts” are completed during home practice sessions.

The section titled “Gametime” refers to the practice session as well. I am most excited about this section because it contains “Review the Play”. During the lesson the student and I discuss goals for each particular piece to be practiced during the week. On a post-it note we write specific items to think about while practicing: notes, rhythm, dynamics, legato, staccato, pedal, etc. During the week, the student must write their own reflections on the post-it notes in any format they wish. Some students write phrases like “good”, “needs work”, “getting better”, etc. Other students using a letter grading system to assess their practice, others using +, ++, check marks, etc. I encourage each student to develop a system that will work for them.

I am loving the “Review the Play” category so much because it has forced the students to listen and evaluate their own playing, which is a foundational goal of teaching. I believe this to be one of the most important skills to teach (and learn) at any level. “Review the Play” puts a fun spin on this essential skill.

The entire incentive takes a few months to complete, depending on the student’s individual level of motivation. Obviously I could have chosen countless other skills to work on with this incentive, but I chose a) the things that fit in with the idea of preparing for a game, and b) the things I think my students need to focus on at the moment. There are lots of ways to vary this fun game, and if you do, please let me know!

This is a glimpse into how the playbook is used in the lesson:



Bead Chains

DSC_0383Last year I ran a year-long incentive called the Wall of Wow, in which students displayed the pieces they had learned on the back of the studio closet door. You can read more about it here, and my evaluation of how it went here. It amazed me how well a little incentive like this built community within the studio and motivated the students to learn.

So I knew I wanted to do something like that again this year. Once again, Pinterest to the rescue. 🙂 I ran across this gem of an idea from Hilton Music Studio and decided to tweak it a little bit to fit my goals.

DSC_0384I decided to award a bead for each piece learned, or in the case of more advanced students, a bead for each page learned. I also award one bead if the practice goal is met for the week. A bead is also given if the student practices and learns the scale, chords and arpeggio assigned for the week.
IMG_0390So far the bead chains have been a huge hit with both girls and boys. The girl featured in the picture above said at her last lesson “I wish I could come twice a week!”. One parent who had to cancel a lesson for medical reasons reported that her kids were very disappointed to miss the lesson. I have noticed a general rise in practicing throughout the week. Yay!

While I try to minimize competition between students as much as possible, the chains provide motivation to earn beads since they are displayed for everyone to see. The students enjoy creating patterns with their choices of beads.

My goal in teaching is to make learning enjoyable for each student. These bead chains have been a useful tool in rewarding the learning that is taking place in a fun and engaging way.



Wall of Wow Evaluation

At the beginning of the fall 2013 semester, I started a studio-wide incentive called the Wall of Wow. Basically it involved hanging up a little tag on the wall with the title of each completed piece and the student’s initials. Each student was given a tag to hang up at the completion of each piece throughout the fall and spring semesters (August – May). You can read more about this incentive here.

I have to say this little incentive worked wonders this year. The students were so excited to see the progress that was made each week on our wall. They loved seeing each other’s progress and how the wall was filling up with completed pieces. I love the sense of community this provided to our group of pianists.

At the last lesson of the semester, I had each student remove their tags from the wall and place them onto a piece of card stock, which was punched with holes to fit inside their three-ring binder. We counted up the pieces they completed and took a picture with their paper-filled with tags.

I’m not sure I will be repeating this incentive again next year because I like to try new things each year. But when I asked some of the students if they would like to fill out tags again next year, they all were enthusiastically positive in their responses. I think that’s a good sign. 🙂 So I will definitely be doing something along these lines next year – to create community within the studio and have a visible, tangible representation of all that was accomplished throughout the year.

This is the Wall of Wow at the end of the spring semester in my home studio:

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This is the Wall of Wow at the end of the year in the school where I provide piano lessons:Piano 094Aren’t these kiddos cute? 🙂 By the way, I ended up teaching approximately 1,465 pieces to 42 students throughout the year. My nerdy side is happy. 🙂


Piano Olympics

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We started Piano Olympics in the studio this past week, and the students seem to be really excited about it! Although when I introduced it to them, a few students blankly stared at me and said “What’s the Olympics?” Whaaaatttt? I have loved the Olympics ever since I can remember. So it seemed natural to capitalize on the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics and have a little Olympic fun.

This fall I purchased an iPad for use in the piano studio. Since then the students have been playing musical games on it during lessons – learning note names, sight reading, ear training, identifying music intervals, etc. It has been a big bonus in lessons. So I wanted to extend the use of those apps into our Piano Olympics.

I decided to have nine events. Four of these are apps on the iPad, which we will complete in the lesson. These include:


1.Blob Chorus – students must play the game twice, correctly identifying at least 9 out of 10 pitches


2. Flashnote Derby – students must complete two rounds, and correctly identifyat least 18 out of 20 notes on the staff


3. Music Intervals – students must identify twenty intervals correctly


4. Sight Reader – students must pass ten sight reading challenges

The remaining five events are as follows:


5. Cool Composer – students compose a song based on one of the winter Olympic events. (Does not need to be written down).


6. Finger Power – students play their specific list of pentascales, scales, chords, and/or arpeggios in the lesson


7. Practice – students must complete ten practice sessions of fifteen minutes each


8. Rhythm Pro – students must correctly tap five rhythm passages (I might use a rhythm app for this as well, or just have students tap passages from their pieces).


9. Soundtrack – students learn to play the Olympic Fanfare (I have an easy version I wrote on Finale, and a slightly harder version I purchased on Online Sheet Music, arranged by Dan Coates).

I printed up little cards for each event and attached them to each other using a medal ring. DSC_0278

All the events need to be completed by March 15. If the student completes 7-9 events, they will win a gold medal. Completing 4-6 events will earn the student a silver medal, completed 2-3 events will earn the student a bronze medal.

I fully expect all my students to earn gold medals, since I plan on completing most of the events together in the lesson. By the way – I am only having my students in sixth grade and below participate, although some of the older kids will be learning the Olympic Fanfare for fun.

I am looking forward to giving out the gold medals come March!