Sightreading Challenge

This spring I tried a new sightreading challenge in the studio. I used the sightreading cards from Piano Safari and designed a simple punch card using Word.

The sightreading cards are a wonderful resource. I considered making my own sightreading pages but was pleased to find these. There are three main levels in the Piano Safari sightreading cards (labeled 1-3), each containing multiple levels within (labeled A-R), Each alphabetical label contains 14-16 cards. The level sequencing is developmentally sound, gradually increasing from off-staff reading to hand separate playing to hands together playing in different keys. I also love the dedicated rhythm reading at the bottom of each card.

I set up the sightreading challenge in this way: I made a chart in Excel with each student’s name and sixteen squares to be colored in upon the completion of each card. Most students were able to finish two cards per lesson. I didn’t want to do many more than that per lesson so as not to take up too much lesson time.

In the lesson I would place the card on the piano. With younger students, I would work through the card with them. In the rhythm section, I would point to the rhythm and tap my hand simultaneously to assist the student. With older students, I would give them thirty seconds or so to place their hands in the correct position and practice silently on top of the keys. I would usually tap along with the student in the rhythm section.

After completing sixteen sightreading challenges, students earned a reward, completed their punch cards, earned a badge and finished coloring in their charts.

I made business card-sized sticker badges to hand out to students upon completion of the challenge. I created these in Word and printed them out on sticker paper. Students enjoyed placing them in various places on their studio binders.

I really do believe the sightreading challenge has helped the students improve their reading skills. A little reading challenge in each lesson helps solidify treble and bass clef notes for younger students; and for older students it give them short exercises in different keys.

Some of the benefits:

  1. Separating parts of music – I really thought the dedicated rhythm tapping at the bottom of each card was helpful.
  2. Quick deep dive on intervals – students were asked to identify different intervals, which was an excellent quick review.
  3. Short exercises – the students felt the cards were games, not drudgery at all
  4. Reward – always helpful in motivating students!
  5. Rhythm tapping – I could easily identify weaknesses pertaining to an individual student or to many students. (Some examples – an individual student had trouble tapping both hands together. A few students struggled with the dotted quarter note rhythm.) Having identified these weaknesses, it was easier to concentrate on these skills in the lesson.

Things to do differently next time – I would probably not do so many cards – maybe only ten total. Since we only played through two cards per week, this made the challenge pretty long – about eight weeks.

Student comments:

  • “I like doing those.”
  • “The rhythm tapping is so fun!”
  • “I’m getting better at tapping rhythms.”
  • “I really think I’m getting better at reading music.”
  • “Sightreading is always fun!”

One student asked to continue sightreading upon completing the challenge. This makes me happy!



Recital Recap

The studio piano recitals this past weekend were so wonderful! I was so pleased with how each student performed. They were a very professional bunch, playing with musicianship and confidence. It was great to see all the families and cheering sections there to support their pianist(s).

The program cover was the piano zentangle design a student had given me at the beginning of the year, which we used as this year’s binder cover.

I teach about forty students, so the past several years I have split the students into two recitals to shorten the length of recitals. I let families request their recital time, but I find that most families are happy to play in either recital. Families are invited to attend both. This year the first recital had 19 performers and was about an hour long; the second recital featured 18 performers and lasted about 45 minutes.
After each recital we enjoyed these cute cupcakes which were graciously made by a piano teacher friend.

One of the highlights was the song “Havana” by Camilla Cabello, played on the piano by a student and accompanied on the cajon (drum) by my son. It was a great experience for both – for my student, who had the added pressure of playing with a steady beat – and for my son, who was provided with another performance opportunity through this event. Everyone loved it, and I could see heads nodding in time as people felt the groove.

I handed out these cute treble clef pins as gifts for all the performers. It was cute to watch kids pinning them onto their clothes immediately. 🙂

A new idea I tried this year was putting together a slide show of pictures I had taken throughout the year. The pictures featured students seated at the piano, or playing music games, or moving their magnet on the practice chart, or playing a duet, or holding a photo prop. The slide show ran on the screen above the piano before the recitals began. It was nice for students and parents to have something to do while we waited to begin and also gave a nice little glimpse into the studio. Here are a few examples:

As well as the slide show, I also had music playing before the recital began. I used a playlist on Amazon music called “Classics for Studying”. It was very soothing, but it might have been a touch too solemn! I might try to jazz it up a little more next year.

And that’s it! Another recital in the books!

Recital Tips – How to Help Your Students Shine By Playing with Professionalism

It’s that time of year again! Recital time – a time I approach with a mix of excitement and nerves. We have such high hopes and dreams for all of our students to play well, enjoy the experience and think back on their recital performance in years to come with huge smiles on their faces.

Along with preparing our students to play their pieces technically and musically well, we need to be preparing students to present themselves and their pieces well. In the weeks prior to the recital, I teach my students how to present themselves professionally in a recital.


During the lesson I have the student walk through their performance, complete with sitting in the (imaginary) audience, walking on stage, playing their piece, and walking back to their seats.

Prior to Playing – Checking Details

When the student walks on stage and prepares to play, I have found it helpful to provide a mental checklist:

  1. Is my music in the right spot? Make sure your music is up on the rack, not balancing on the fall board. Also make sure your page turns are ready – if you need to fold up the edges of your pages, do so now.
  2. Is the bench in the right place? Take your time to position it properly.
  3. Put your foot on the pedal and check to make sure it is on the correct pedal.
  4. Check your music once again –  can I see my music?
  5. Put your hand on the keys and double check you are in the right position – look to Middle C to be your guide.

During Your Performance

  1. Make sure your page turns are smooth and quiet -you may have to turn the page early or late and memorize a few measures to ensure a smooth turn. Try not to make the turn noisy – it should be seamless so that if we aren’t watching you we wouldn’t know you just turned a page.
  2. No silences! (Unless specifically indicated in the music). If you have to stop playing to find a hand position or figure out where you are, keep your pedal down to help mask the pause.
  3. If you make a mistake, keep going! Try not to go back to fix anything. If you do, you sacrifice forward momentum and often will make the mistake worse and more noticeable. Keep going and act like you meant to play that!
  4. Facial gestures – don’t give anything away with a sigh or facial gesture that may indicate you are unhappy with what just happened. If you act like everything is fine and you meant to play that – most people will believe you and not even know something was amiss.

How To End Your Performance

  1. When you are finished playing, keep your hands on the keys and your foot on the pedal until you want the sound to end.
  2. When finishing the song, lift your hands up out of the keys, then place them gently into your lap. This is a cue to the audience that you are finished and they may applaud you.

Practice Your Performance

During home practice the student should practice their performance, which means walking through the entire sequence listed above. The student should not stop to fix mistakes when they are practicing the performance. That is reserved for practice/drilling time. I spend a lot of time distinguishing between practice/drilling and practicing the performance. If the student spends too much time drilling they will create a habit to stop and fix mistakes whenever they pop up. We do not want to fix any mistakes during the performance – only forward motion.

Remember – we are on your team! 

Everyone is cheering for you!

A few things I do to help on recital day-

  1. I want every student to walk up on stage before the recital to find their correct starting position. It can be very disorienting to encounter a new piano for the first time when you are sitting down for a performance.
  2. I always go on stage with my young students to make sure their music is positioned correctly, the bench is in the right place, and they begin with their hands in the correct starting position.
  3. I only speak positive words before and after the recital. We can talk about mistakes or poor performances later in the following lesson.
  4. I smile through the entire recital – always showing pleasure in each performance.

A few thoughts post-recital-

My studio recitals were this past weekend, so the student performances are fresh in my mind. I couldn’t believe how well the students performed. Usually there are a few moments in each recital where the unexpected happens – awkward silences, pages falling off the piano, students who start in the wrong place and have to start again. None of this happened yesterday. All the performances put the audience at ease and were enjoyable to listen to, from beginning students on up to advanced students.

I am so grateful. I think the steps mentioned above that we took to prepare students really worked. The students appeared to be confident and well-prepared. I think parents and students alike will look back upon this performance with good memories.

For more thoughts on recital preparation, you may wish to read my post written last spring on Recital Prep. 

7 Happy Teaching Moments (April 2018) Plus Recommended Reading and Listening

“The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

In my teaching life I am grateful for moments like these…

  1. Teaching with open windows, fresh spring breezes and birds chirping their accompaniments
  2. Student taking a music theory class in school and bringing the workbook to a lesson for further clarification on chord qualities. The theory geek in me was so happy.
  3. Recording piano pieces for students on their phones. They listen to the recording during home practice and have an example of what they’re working towards.
  4. Chatting with a student about how to manage frustration, then the next week finding his hand-written notes on what I had said in his binder.
  5. Recital and Achievement Day prep – running through scales, arpeggios, memorized music
  6. New student: “Dogs and piano are the best things in life.” I totally agree.
  7. A student’s sibling doing little jobs for me during his sister’s lesson – close blinds against afternoon sun, organize stickers and prize bin


Recommended reading:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Read my review here.

Recommended listening:

Billy Joel’s Fantasies and Delusions

This album was so beautiful. I never knew that Billy Joel composed classical piano music until an adult student brought this CD for me to listen to.  I’m planning to order the music score and try my hand at it. It’s not easy!

The Amazon description: “Fantasies & Delusions is the next chapter in Billy Joel’s life-long love affair with the piano. Before the world-renowned “Piano Man” ever discovered pop, he grew up studying classical piano, already feeling the influences of Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann and many others. Although he ran away with the seductress named Rock’n’Roll as a teenager, 30 years later he returns to where he began to pay tribute to the music that made him fall in love with music in the first place. This matching folio features all 12 pieces from the album, as performed by Richard Joo.”

A Look At My Studio

I always enjoy a peek into other studios to see how other teachers use their space. Here’s a peek into my studio and the things I use every day –

  • My Kawai grand piano (bought on craigslist!)
  • Computer
  • iPad – used for games and Moosic invoicing app
  • Notebook – used to jot down quick ideas, notes, reminders

Next to the bookshelf is:

  • Printer – Dell E525w
  • Hole puncher
  • Floor fan – used to block noise from the rest of the house (my family usually aren’t very noisy, but the fan helps to dampen some sound)
  • Printer paper
  • Paper cutter

  • Pencils
  • Highlighter
  • Clock
  • Footstool

This cute little shelf is next to my teaching space. It holds lots of things:

  • Office supplies such as 3M flags, paper clips, more pens, pencils and highlighters, stapler and staples, hole punch, Scotch tape
  • Personal items such as Carmex, ibuprofen, cough drops, tissues
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Metronome
  • Flashcards
  • Magnetic staff
  • Stickers
  • Music stamps
  • My daughters’ music binders
  • Photo props

On the windowsill above the little shelf are my Japanese erasers and my all-important mug warmer. 🙂

The keyboard with headphones – students practice while siblings take lessons

Fun things to keep waiting siblings occupied:

  • Sketch book
  • Wipe-off puzzles
  • Extreme Dot to Dot
  • Zolocolor

I spy Beethoven! And Liszt!

Little chest with puzzles

Table and chairs with lots of colored pencils, pencils, pens and Twistables for those who are waiting.

Candy dish!

Closet filled with:

  • Practice chart
  • Professional magazines
  • Binders with music
  • Miscellaneous files (and items waiting to be organized!)
  • Office supplies such as scissors, dry erase fluid, wet wipes
  • Manipulatives such as blocks, dice, craft sticks, etc.
  • Extra flashcards, music dictionaries, business cards
  • Rolling cart
    • Top drawer contains prizes
    • Middle drawer contains music games
    • Bottom drawer contains more puzzles and supplies
  • CD player

Big whiteboard which is used for multiple things – terms board, flashcard challenge, sightreading challenge, etc.

Little table with:

  • Magnetic bass and treble clef
  • Dry erase markers
  • Bean bags

I use curtains to separate the studio space from the rest of the house. The curtains serve well to dampen sound both ways and to give privacy to both spaces.

And there it is! 🙂

“The Talent Code” Book Review

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Published in April 2009, Coyle “examines research into myelin, a neural insulator produced when we repeatedly ‘fire a particular circuit’ “; explores ways in which people are motivated to develop their skills, and identifies the winning strategies of master coaches who produce world-class performers and athletes.

Coyle was one of the first researchers to support the benchmark that to produce world-class skill in any area, a person must invest 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their particular field – music, sports, etc. This research is fascinating and definitely worth examining in regards to helping our students develop their own talent. However, I was extremely interested in the last section dedicated to master coaches.

How do the master coaches pull out the best in their students?

Of the many excellent examples contained in the book, I boiled them down to a few take-aways I want to improve upon in my own teaching.

Concerning famed football coach John Wooden (emphasis, mine):

“He didn’t only tell them what to do: he became what they should do, communicating the goal with gesture, tone, rhythm, and gaze. The signals were targeted, concise, unmissable, and accurate.”

[Researchers of John Wooden] “Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way.”

“He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method”—he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts,’ he wrote in The Wisdom of Wooden. “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated,” he said in You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned, authored by Gallimore and former Wooden player Swen Nater. ‘Repetition is the key to learning.'”

Concerning research of other master teachers:

“[They teach in a] series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts. They never began sentences with “Please, would you” or “Do you think” or “What about;” instead they spoke in short imperatives. “Now do X” was the most common construction; the “you will” was implied.”

“Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out as common to all of them. It was: ‘Good. Okay, now do_____.’ A coach would employ it when a student got the hang of some new move or technique. As soon as the student could accomplish the feat (play that chord, hit that volley), the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Good. Okay, now do it faster. Now do it with the harmony. Small successes were not stopping points but stepping-stones.”

“‘Sixty percent of what you teach applies to everybody,” [Tom Martinez] continued. “The trick is how you get that sixty percent to the person. If I teach you, I’m concerned about what you think and how you think. I want to teach you how to learn in a way that’s right for you. My greatest challenge is not teaching Tom Brady but some guy who can’t do it at all, and getting them to a point where they can. Now that is coaching.'”

Already I have found myself analyzing my teaching in a new light, and I’ve already started incorporating more short coaching-type speech into each lesson. It will be interesting to evaluate the long-term effect this has in the weeks, months and years to come.

Long Recital Pieces for Beginning Piano Students

I love having young students play in recitals. They get the biggest applause, they often have the most family and friends in their cheering section, and usually they are the ones that dress up the most! It’s sad that their time on stage goes by so quickly because their pieces are often short.

Today I want to highlight some long recital pieces for young students. Here are some parameters I keep in mind while searching for appropriate pieces:

  1. The staff reading should be between Bass C – Treble G, sometimes up to Treble A, unless it can be taught by rote
  2. Minimal moving, unless it is the same hand position moved to different registers
  3. Minimal hands together playing
  4. The pieces I like best have B sections, not just one long A section

I timed myself playing these pieces at about the tempo I would imagine a young student to take, so the indicated times are approximate. (Example- 1:09 means one minute, nine seconds)

The parantheses indicate where to find the piece.

Suitable for young beginners – no hands together playing:

  • Gone Fishin’ by June C. Montgomery (sheet music) 1:09 
    • all single notes
    • varies dynamics, tempo and register
  • Fuzzy Baby Bird by Martha Mier (sheet music) :40
    • all single notes
    • charming right hand glissando at end
  • In My Dreams by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) :53
    • one F# in right hand
    • musical instructions such as fermata, ritardando, a tempo
    • teacher duet
  • The Minnow by Lynne Cox (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:03
    • A few slurs
  • Lost Treasure by Mona Rejino (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:15
    • minor – great for kids who like the sound of minor tonality
    • teacher duet
  • Rainy Day Play by Carol Klose (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) :50
    • Right hand gets to play chord cluster with RH palm slap to imitate splashing in a puddle
    • great use of staccato to imitate raindrops
    • variety of dynamics
    • teacher duet
  • Daily Workout by Robert Donahue ( It’s a Breeze! Book 1) :57
    • nice melody and B section
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
  • The Whale by Lynne Cox (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:25
    • hands play together once
    • 3/4 meter creates the feeling of a sea chantey
    • loud dynamics – up to fortissimo
    • octave higher for both hands in one section
  • Clown Serenade by John Robert Poe (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:18
    • RH is in D position
    • legato and staccato
  • Tag-along by Anne Shannon Demarest (sheet music) 1:06
    • a bit more difficult – seconds and thirds in right hand
    • a few Eb and G#
  • Joyful Bells by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:22
    • very mature sounding, suitable for older beginners
    • fourths in both hands, fifth in right hand
    • RH in D position
    • beautiful B section imitation bells
    • teacher duet

 Some hands together playing, but minimal or used in a repeating pattern:

  • The Frog by Carolyn Miller :47
    • adorable tune imitating frog jumps
    • left hand jumps over right hand to play treble C
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
  • The Hiccup Song by Martha Mier :49
    • cute use of accent to imitate hiccups
    • register change in two places
    • left hand plays harmonic intervals for second, third and fifth as an accompaniment to right hand melody
  • Daydreams by Anne Shannon Demarest 1:13
    • hands together, but used in a pattern
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
    • B section is written in the key of G – key signature will need to be taught if student is unfamiliar with the concept
    • pedal in two places
  • Party Cat Parade by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:35
    • very cute!
    • teacher duet
  • Dalmatians! by Tom Gerou (DogGone It!) :42
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
    • cute for a student who loves dogs
    • B section
    • hands together stepping down sections
    • teacher duet
  • Rescue in the Alps by Tom Gerou (DogGone It!) :56
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
    • cute yodeling B section
    • hands together – hands playing same notes an octave apart in a few places
    • teacher duet

A bit more difficult:

  • Little Flower Girl of Paris by William Gillock – (Accent on Solos Level 2) 1:25
    • waltz pattern with seconds and thirds in both hands, but no hands together playing
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato), dynamics and tempos
    • sounds Parisian
    • some F# in both hands
  • Windflowers by Anne Shannon Demarest (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:05 (
    • waltz pattern with thirds and fourths in RH
    • some hands together playing
    • Bb in left hand
    • some pedal
  • Day Dreams by William L. Gillock (Blue Ribbon Encyclopedia: Favorite Piano Solos Book 1)1:20
    • beautiful waltz with gorgeous left hand melody
    • right hand seconds and thirds to produce waltz accompaniment
    • left hand over right hand in two places
    • right hand moving an octave up, then two octaves up
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
    • some pedal

These pieces I have taught by rote, and both have been successful beginner recital pieces:

Ocean Spray by Anne Crosby Gaudet -from Fuzzy Beluga 1:03

  • hands together at the beginning of almost every measure
  • wide range between hands
  • register changes
  • black keys only
  • pedal throughout

Bells by Lynn Freeman Olson (Finger Fitness) 1:07

  • no hands together playing
  • wide arm range at same time
  • moving to different registers
  • pedal throughout

These are the books listed in this post:

Below you will find the referenced songs categorized by book.

Myklas Contest Winners Book 1

  • In My Dreams
  • Joyful Bells
  • Lost Treasure
  • Party Cat Parade
  • Rainy Day Play

Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1 Elementary (the pre-staf book is also terrific for young students)

  • The Minnow
  • The Whale
  • Clown Serenade
  • Windflowers

DogGone It! by Tom Gerou

  • Dalmatians!
  • Rescue in the Alps

Accent on Solos Book 2 by William Gillock

  • Little Flower Girl of Paris

Blue Ribbon Encyclopedia

  • Day Dreams

It’s a Breeze! Book 1

  • Daily Workout

The sheet music:

  • Gone Fishin’ by June C. Montgomery
  • Fuzzy Baby Bird by Martha Mier
  • The Hiccup Song by Martha Mier
  • Tag-along by Anne Shannon Demarest
  • Daydreams by Anne Shannon Demarest
  • The Frog by Carolyn Miller

Please feel free to add your thoughts and recommendations!