The Method Dilemma

E. L. LancasterToo Old for a Children’s Method and Too Young for an Adult Method
By E. L. Lancaster

Today’s students are more sophisticated than ever due to technology and social media. Our seven- and eight-year old students usually like typical beginning methods with colored art work and words to beginning pieces. When beginning students are nine-years and older, sometimes beginning methods appear to be too juvenile for them. At the same time, adult methods present too much information for them to successfully assimilate and move too quickly for technical and musical success. Since the release of Premier Piano Course, many teachers have said that their older students like the music, but they can sometimes move faster.

Premier Piano Express is a method for those students who can progress more quickly than younger students but need less information to absorb than is found in adult methods.
Book 1 includes all concepts introduced in Premier Piano Course, Levels 1A and 1B. Book 2 includes all concepts introduced in Levels 2A and 2B. The features of the “Express Course” follow:
• It is designed for students who need a faster-paced approach to piano study.
• It integrates Lesson, Theory, Technique, and Performance pages into each book.
• Like the regular course, it utilizes a non-position reading approach to avoid fixed hand positions and introduces rhythms in multiple-note patterns.
• Each book includes a CD+ with MIDI files, TNT2 Custom Mix Software, and MP3s of orchestrated accompaniments with piano, orchestrated accompaniments without piano, acoustic piano performances at practice tempos, and acoustic piano performances at performance tempos.

The TNT2 Custom Mix Software allows the user to change tempos in the audio files. In addition, the CD-ROM contains General MIDI files that can be downloaded. For students who do not have a CD-ROM drive, these files can be downloaded at
This comprehensive course is organized into skills-based units that feature clear explanations of important musical concepts, written worksheets to provide review and strengthen understanding, as well as optional duet accompaniments to create fulfilling musical experiences. The Unit titles follow:

Premier Piano ExpressBook 1
Unit 1: Keyboard Basics
Unit 2: The Music Alphabet
Unit 3: The Staff
Unit 4: Steps in Bass Clef
Unit 5: Steps in Treble Clef
Unit 6: Skips on the Staff
Unit 7: Legato and Staccato
Unit 8: Intervals of 2nds and 3rds
Unit 9: The G 5-Finger Pattern
Unit 10: Intervals of 4ths and 5ths
Unit 11: Sharps and Flats

Premier Piano ExpressBook 2
Unit 1: The C 5-Finger Pattern
Unit 2: Dynamics and Tempo
Unit 3: Tonic and Dominant in C
Unit 4: Eighth Notes
Unit 5: Tonic and Dominant in G
Unit 6: Half and Whole Steps
Unit 7: Major 5-Finger Patterns
Unit 8: Interval of a 6th
Unit 9: New Notes on the Staff
Unit 10: Minor 5-Finger Patterns
Unit 11: Intervals of 7th and Octaves
Unit 12: C and G Major Scales and Chords
Unit 13: Dotted Quarter Note

The music in Premier Piano Express was written by Dennis Alexander and Martha Mier. To make the course more appealing to older students, the original art work has been removed and any juvenile words have also been eliminated from the music. The last three pieces in Book 1 illustrate the various styles featured in the course. They include two familiar arrangements and an original piece in a showstopper style.
Premier Piano Express
This accelerated approach includes method, theory, performance, and technique pages in each unit – giving students a comprehensive approach upon which to build musical understanding and performance skills. Pages 21–24 of Unit 4 from Book 2 illustrate pages that focus on these four important areas.
Premier Piano Express
Choosing a method that appeals to each student is a teacher’s most important job when working with beginning students. In Professional Piano Teaching, Book 1, Jeanine Jacobson lists important criteria to consider when selecting a method. She summarizes in three important points:
• The function of a method book is to provide a logical progression for learning concepts and skills, and music for the practice of these elements.
• Choosing the appropriate method will help students move through the beginning stages with relative ease, while laying a strong foundation for future study.
• The student’s learning style, experience with music, understanding of the keyboard, aural and physical development, reading capabilities, and rhythmic maturity are all factors to be considered when choosing a beginning method.
Premier Piano Express fills the need for students who are too old for a children’s method and too young for an adult method.

Tools to Help You Build Rhythmic Reading Skills

By Sally K. Albrecht

Tools to Help You Build Rhythmic Reading Skills

It’s never too early to integrate rhythmic reading activities into your curriculum, and it’s important to teach and reinforce musical concepts in a variety of ways. For rhythmic reading, try clapping, tapping, chanting, and playing classroom instruments. Alfred offers a wonderful variety of reproducible publications to help!

Rhythm Workshop
575 Reproducible Exercises Designed to Improve Rhythmic Reading Skills
By Sally K. Albrecht
This is an excellent resource designed to encourage and enable students to develop solid rhythmic reading skills! It features 100 pages containing 575 rhythm exercises in a variety of time signatures with concepts introduced and combined together to challenge and motivate your students.

Ready to Read Music
Sequential Lessons in Music Reading Readiness
By Jay Althouse
Just like you need to know the alphabet in order to read text, you need to know the symbols of music before singing or playing! Includes 4 sequential units of 8 lessons each. A very good place to start!

Schoolhouse Raps
8 Educational and Energetic Speech Choir Raps
By Sally K. Albrecht & Melinda B. Smith
This popular and innovative collection of 8 speech choir “raps” is ideal for interdisciplinary study and rhythmic reading!

Let’s Have a Musical Rhythm Band
15 Unique Studies and Arrangements for Rhythmic Reading
By Phoebe Diller
Play rhythm band instruments along with the music of famous classical composers.

Shakin’ It Up!
10 Unison Songs with Rhythm Instruments
By Sally K. Albrecht & Jay Althouse
Each song features a different rhythm band instrument. Some students play, some sing . . . then trade!

Rhythm to the Rescue!
10 Unison Songs in 10 Different Rhythmic Styles with Optional Rhythm Band
By Sally K. Albrecht
Combine clever songs with rhythmic reading and stylistic concepts. Learn the rhythms that go along with the different styles of music. A great way to put all your knowledge together, plus these songs make an entertaining 15-minute performance program.

Arranging Popular Hits to Reinforce Concepts

By Tom Gerou
Tom Gerou

Over the years, I have enjoyed arranging many titles for the Top Hits, Praise Hits, and Patriotic Solos books in Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. Knowing that students enjoy playing familiar popular music, I recently added Popular Hits, Levels 1A, 1B, 2, and 3 to the library. In choosing pieces, I selected more current titles than are contained in many pop books that are a part of methods. These arrangements are correlated page by page with the Lesson Books and reinforce the concepts introduced in the method.

Arranging popular music to reinforce the concepts introduced in the Lesson Book pages presents unique challenges. At the early levels, this is especially true. Choosing age-appropriate titles with melodies that fit within a limited range of notes is one of those challenges. To ensure that pieces are not too long, I often only arrange the most recognizable section(s). At the earlier levels (1A and 1B), teacher duet parts support the student part and offer a richer, more satisfying experience. The remainder of this article will point out the concepts reinforced in pieces from various levels of the Popular Hits books and identify challenging that I encountered when making them musically and technically accessible for students.

Popular Hits, Level 1A: Just the Way You Are (Amazing)

The slurs in the arrangement of the Bruno Mars “Just the Way You Are (Amazing)” reinforce legato playing. The legato RH melody alternates with harmonic 2nds, 3rds, and 4ths in the LH. The intervals fill in the harmony between fragments of the melody. The common note (G) at the top of each interval makes the motion easier. In measures 12-13, the lower notes of the harmonic intervals are ascending. Measure 16 uses a broken C major triad (skips or 3rds) before finishing the final chord.

Repeat signs are introduced in this level, and I encourage students to always observe the repeats. Not only does the piece sound more substantial by being longer (albeit with a literal repeat), but it encourages students to respect the balance of form when learning sonatinas and sonatas in later studies. Repeats are essential to balancing sections within the form of the piece—they are not optional. To avoid using the half rest, which has not been introduced, the piece begins with a 2nd in the LH in the student part. When taking the repeat, the 2nd also helps propel the motion.

Just the Way You Are (Amazing)

Popular Hits, Level 1A: Theme from Superman

The arrangement of “Theme from Superman” is an example of the melody re-notated in 3/4 meter with augmented (doubled) rhythmic values to avoid the use of triplets. In the method, students have not been introduced to triplets that are essential to this melody. When played up to tempo, the perception is the same as a triplet, yet the quarter-note notation allows the student to count with familiar rhythmic values.

This arrangement is in C position with an accidental (F-sharp in measure 18) placed within an interval of a 3rd. Sharps are new to the student and the use of the F-sharp remains within the RH range of C position. The duet part directly supports the student part with emphasis placed on hearing the pulse—essential to the beginning student.

Theme from Superman

Let It GoPopular Hits, Level 1B: Let It Go (from Walt Disney’s Frozen)

When students begin to play hands together, it is important to avoid too many occurrences in the same arrangement. In “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, a pattern is set up using 3rds in both the RH and the LH. Students briefly play hands together. In these instances, the interval of a 3rd is used as an accompanying figure, requiring careful balance between the hands.

Cantina BandPopular Hits, Level 1B: Cantina Band (from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

Staccato and legato touches are used in this arrangement of a Star Wars® favorite, “Cantina Band.” Students are given ample opportunity to review sharps and flats introduced in Level 1A and utilize eighth notes introduced in this level.


Popular Hits, Level 1B: Batman ThemeBatman Theme

The well-known Batman theme is a wonderful correlation to the pages in the Lesson Book where half steps are introduced. The theme passes from LH to RH, offering the opportunity to practice half steps in both hands. In measure 2, an eighth rest is added in the LH to allow students to prepare for the next measure. A quarter rest in the RH serves the same function. The 2nds in the RH melody are held, letting students focus on the accompanying chromatic pattern.

All About That BassPopular Hits, Level 1B: All About That Bass

D-flat is used to allow the natural sign to be reinforced in the Meghan Trainor hit, “All About That Bass.” By using a D-flat instead of a C-sharp, the student can clearly see the interval of a 3rd when approaching the B-flat. I took advantage of the title and arranged the melody in the LH (the “Bass”) throughout. On the second page, the melody is repeated an octave lower.

Over the RainbowPopular Hits, Level 2: Over the Rainbow (As sung by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole)

This famous melody, “Over the Rainbow,” was reinterpreted by the artist IZ with the accompaniment of a ukulele. A typical ukulele accompaniment pattern is retained in the LH. To avoid unnecessary difficulty, the pattern is dropped and restarted throughout the piece. Although the melody is familiar, the interpretation by IZ provides a contemporary version of the melody.

Hand shifts are necessary throughout the piece but are preceded by rests to allow time for the hands to move. Measure 8 uses an ascending five-finger pattern in the LH, while measures 15 and 16 use an extended hand position and the interval of an octave in the RH.

Take on the WorldPopular Hits, Level 2: Take On the World (Theme from Girl Meets World)

“Take on the World” is the theme from a popular Disney Channel series, Girl Meets World. The two rhythm patterns in the LH in measures 1-2 and 3-4 are used throughout the song. By minimizing the number of patterns that are used, students can easily learn and practice them. In measures 9 and 10, the RH melody uses an ascending G major scale. The LH scale descends in measures 11 and 12 as part of the accompaniment.

Star Wars Main ThemePopular Hits, Level 2: Star Wars (Main Theme)

This arrangement of “Star Wars® (Main Theme)” requires the LH to cross over the RH in measure 7. Students enjoy the motion and it serves to avoid stretching or changing hand positions to reach the high D. The RH remains in D position for the chords in measures 8-9. The melody shifts between the hands when the LH crosses over the RH.

What Do You Mean?
Popular Hits, Level 3: What Do You Mean?

This Justin Bieber song is perfect for reinforcing pedaling, playing 8va, and easy hand shifting. I added an introduction (measures 1-4) to the beginning and repeated it in measures 22-25 to give variety to the arrangement. In measure 5, the student pedals the first three beats as the harmony settles on a 9th chord. The sound is unique so the student should let the chord ring out, an effect supported by the pedal. Similar pedaling is repeated throughout the piece.

A LH rhythm is introduced in measure 13 that echoes throughout the remainder of the piece. It helps the piece move forward with more rhythmic activity. The measure also provides an opportunity to cross finger 2 over finger 1.

See You AgainPopular Hits, Level 3: See You Again (from Furious 7)

As students make progress, they gradually extend out of a five-finger position. “See You Again” from the movie Furious 7 opens with a C major triad using fingers 1, 2, and 3, so that the 4th finger can execute a wider-range melody.

In measure 1, intervals are played instead of triads that students have not yet learned. In measure 3, a second inversion F major triad (IV) and the root position C major triad (I)are used since students have studied these close position chords. This change of harmonic density offers variety throughout the piece.

Colour My WorldPopular Hits, Level 3: Colour My World

“Colour My World,” by the band Chicago, allows the student to practice broken triads in the RH. I only arranged the introduction, as it stands quite well as an individual piece. In measure 1 of the original, the RH would have played a broken, four-note 7th chord. I eliminated the first note in each pattern of this arrangement so that the RH only plays triads throughout. This piece is also an excellent vehicle for working on syncopated pedaling as the downbeat of each measure is pedaled consistently throughout.

Correlating popular songs to a method is a challenging undertaking. However, the final result provides student-friendly arrangements that thoroughly reinforce the skills and concepts at each level while making them satisfying for students, teachers, and audiences. I hope that you and your students enjoy playing these “Popular Hits.”

12 Tips for the First Week of School

By the Alfred Music Choral and Classroom Editors

Last year’s school year is in the books and the upcoming year is waiting with promises of new music and fresh opportunities. Whether you’re returning to an established program or stepping into your classroom for the first time, start off on the right foot with these 12 tips for the first week of school, as recommended by the Alfred Choral and Classroom editors.

Learn your students’ names. Consider greeting each student at the door as they enter. For an especially large group, use nametags until you have every one learned. Students will be responsive and respectful when addressed by name.

Jump right into the music. Kick off your year with a fun song that can come together in just one or two rehearsals. Instant success will give students the confidence they need for more challenging repertoire. And opening the year with a “student favorite” will motivate them for the year ahead.

Provide a good model. If you desire rehearsals that start on time, start teaching on timeIf you value beautiful tone quality, demonstrate beautiful tone quality. If you enjoy positive and uplifting rehearsals, lead positive and uplifting rehearsals. Students will mirror what they observe.

Establish the rules. “Welcome to choir. We will start every rehearsal on time. Please throw away your gum as you enter the room. I expect you to have a pencil in your folder at all times. And thank you for not talking when I’m working with another section.”

Set the bar high. Why save the best stuff for performances only? Make the most of every rehearsal and class period by demanding quality at all times. Students will always rise to the challenge, and soon the highest of expectations will be met—and even surpassed!

Add music theory and history to your curriculum. This will raise student interest and provide both the context and background for them to gain a deeper understanding of the music they are learning. Inevitably, this will shine through, enhancing their performances during the year.

Get to know the support staff. Your school secretary will be so helpful when it’s time to print programs. Custodians will spend plenty of time setting up and taking down the choral risers. And many off-site performances will be made possible thanks to the head of transportation.

Schedule everything you can. Teachers, parents, and students are busier than ever. Take the time to put together a master calendar of all concerts, festivals, and other activities for the year that you are aware of, and then pass it along to everyone who needs to know.

Communicate with parents. Obtain students’ and parents’ e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. Organize the e-mail addresses in a folder on your computer so that you can immediately and effectively communicate details about your program.

Set up a substitute book. Absences are bound to occur during the school year, whether due to illness (yours or a relative’s) or a conference. Having a substitute book prepared will give you peace of mind and the knowledge that your sub has been provided with lesson plans that they can easily implement.

Reflect. Take some time at the end of the first week (or every week) to review each class/group, assess their progress, and affirm that you are heading in the right direction.

Remember that you aren’t perfect. We all have days when what we have planned for the classroom simply doesn’t work, and that’s ok! Learn from those  mistakes and continue to believe in yourself and your students. Celebrate the small victories along the way!

A Four-Point Plan for Student Success at the Piano

Teaching Tips from Elvina Pearce
Elvina Pearce
Starting a new piece is a special event, and getting off to a good start is very important! When introducing a new piece, I use a “Four-Point Plan” to help students. The lesson plan that follows is one that I use to introduce “Toccata Breve” from my book, Elvina Pearce’s Favorite Solos, Book 2.

Step One: Exploring What the Piece Is About

I ask the student a series of questions to aid with learning. I explore these questions together with the student in the lesson. Questions for this piece follow:
• What is a toccata?
• What does breve mean?
• Above measure one, what words are used to suggest the piece’s character?
• How will the dynamics and other things such as the tempo, rhythm, staccatos, and accents affect the interpretation and mood of this piece?

Step Two: Hearing a Performance of the Piece

After discussing what the piece is about, I play it for the student before determining how to practice it. I play it because I think it is unrealistic to expect students to be enthusiastic about learning to play a new piece without having actually heard it. However, I do make an exception to this policy with elementary-level students who are in the process of acquiring reading skills, because I want to be sure that they are actually reading their pieces and not just playing by ear.

Step Three: Analyzing the Piece’s Form and Structural Elements

Because I always ask my students to follow the music as they listen to the performance, they are ready to analyze its structure, dividing it into sections and labeling them. Example 1 illustrates how a student might mark and label the form of “Toccata Breve.”

Toccata Breve

In addition to its formal structure, I discuss with the student other useful information that a formal analysis reveals about this piece. Some examples follow:
• Except for the last line, the LH part consists of only two intervals. What are the two intervals? (4ths and 5ths) Which two fingers play the 4ths? (1 and 4) Which two fingers play the 5ths? (5 and 1)
• The RH also consists mostly of just two intervals. What are the two intervals? (3rds and 4ths) Which two fingers play the 3rds? (1 and 3) Which two fingers play the 4ths?(1 and 4 as in m. 6, or 2 and 5 as in m. 11).
• How many times does the RH play three-note blocked chords? (Seven) All but one of these are 6/3 (1st inversion) chords. In which measure is there a different chord? (m. 16) What kind of a chord is in this measure? (A 5/3 root position minor triad).
• Dynamically, how is the B section different from the A section? (The B section is mf, softer than the first A section which is f.)
• In which measures does the tempo slow down? (m. 20, and mm. 31-32)

Step Four: Determining Practice Procedures

The successful outcome of a piece depends on practice—not on how much, but on how it is practiced. Besides understanding the form of a piece before beginning to work on it, a thorough analysis of its structural elements also provides valuable clues about how to practice it.

I categorize practice procedures such as those that follow as the “mechanics” of practicing. These are the things that need to be done to be able to play pieces accurately at the appropriate tempo with technical ease and security.

Practice Tips for Working Out “Toccata Breve”

Recommended tips for how to practice “Toccata Breve” follow. When students try these practice steps, they are able to learn this piece quickly!

• LH: Play the two notes in each circle blocked together as shown in Example 2. Practicing just these circled shifts of position means that students are practicing the entire LH part.

Example 2

• RH: Play the circles only (not in rhythm) moving from one circle to the next until these changes can be easily executed as in Example 3. When this can be done easily, play the RH as written, adding the rhythm, and counting aloud.

Example 3

When playing “Toccata Breve” at a slow tempo, I recommend that it be counted as if written in 6/8 time rather than 2/4 because of the triplets. See Example 4. Notice that the accented quarter note occurs on count 5.

Example 4

• HT (Hands Together): When practicing hands together, work in short sections (A, B, Coda). First, play each section HT with LH as written and RH blocked as shown in Example 5.

Example 5

Next, play HT as written at a “thinking tempo.”A “thinking tempo” is the speed at which a piece can be played 100% accurately with technical security. This is usually very slow in the work-out phase of a new piece, and in the case of “Toccata Breve,” a “thinking tempo” might be eighth note = 96. When secure at eighth note = 96, once again working in sections, increase the tempo incrementally until arriving at the suggested performance tempo (quarter note = 84).

Once a piece can be played securely at the desired performance tempo, then the focus in practice can shift from mechanics to musicality. In “Toccata Breve,” this would entail adding the dynamics, the ritardandos, the pedal in measure 20, and above all, striving to create a very lively and energetic character throughout.

When the approach is based on the Four-Point Plan, learning the piece will get off to a good start. Students should have access to and then carefully follow specific practice steps that are designed to make it possible to achieve maximum success with a minimum amount of time and effort. The overall goal is always to get to the “good stuff”—the musicality of a piece—as soon as possible so that the player can experience the enjoyment and satisfaction of creating a rewarding musical performance!

The pieces in the three books of Elvina Pearce’s Favorite Solos series were designed as recreational music that can be learned quickly and played for enjoyment. “Toccata Breve” is one of my favorite pieces from Book 2 and I hope that you will enjoy playing it and the other pieces in the series as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Alfred Music and Newtown Cultural Arts Commission Share the Joy of Making Music

By Toni Hosman, Marketing Coordinator, Alfred Music

Music has always been synonymous with beauty and restoration, and now, one community is using music to heal a town ravaged by tragedy. On December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook, CT was struck by one of the most horrific events in U.S. history when a gunman fatally shot over 25 children and Elementary school staff members. In the wake of this devastation, the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission (NCAC) created the “HealingNewtown through the Power of the Arts” program.

Through the HealingNewtown Program and other projects, the Newtown Cultural Arts Commission is dedicated to providing concerts, events, performances, workshops and classes geared toward helping the community continue to move past the Sandy Hook tragedy through the arts. The NCAC also established the Newtown Arts Festival which will be celebrating its 5th anniversary in September. The festival showcases all forms of creative expression such as visual arts, dance, music, written word, and theatre in the setting of a town-wide, month-long celebration.

“The HealingNewtown art space has had a positive impact on our community and continues to provide programs that support resiliency and our path forward. We are grateful for that expertise and commitment to our local arts efforts,” says Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra.

Alfred Music had the privilege of donating sheet music and classroom resources for the band, orchestra and choral programs to help support upcoming concerts and programs. Alfred Music is among several companies that have also contributed to the success of the program. From musical instruments and equipment, to software and sheet music, the community is using these donated goods for events, benefit concerts, and more. The Newtown School District is also taking advantage of these generously donated supplies for their music activities.

Ron Manus, CEO Alfred Music said, “Music is so important to have in our lives, it has so many benefits and brings so much joy. We wish for everyone to experience the joy of making music and we are honored to be a part of this program.”

The Alfred Music family is proud to support healing lives through the power of music. If you are interested in donating to the HealingNewtown Program or want to learn more about how to become involved, please visit If you would like more information about the 5th annual Newtown Arts Festival or to be a sponsor, visit

Stephen Collins Foster – The Father of American Music

Jeanine M. Jacobson

By Kathleen Ballantyne
Composer and Ithaca Children and Youth Chorus,  Artistic Director

“Oh! Susannah,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races” are only some of the songs that many of us learned in childhood and have come to embrace as part of the quintessential American musical identity. Though they have become so universally popular and regarded as simply folksongs, all three tunes were written by Stephen Collins Foster.

Foster was, in fact, America’s first true professional composer, since unlike his contemporaries, he earned his income from songwriting only, rather than a combination of performing, teaching, and writing.

Despite being known as “The Father of American Music,” Foster was plagued by financial insolvency throughout his life. A series of bad business decisions by his father led to the loss of the family home overlooking the Allegheny River when Stephen was a boy. Stephen’s fortunes weren’t much better once he was on his own: between rampant copyright infringement and poor contractual negotiations, Foster struggled to make ends meet throughout most of his life.

“Camptown Races,” one of Foster’s earliest and most relentlessly plagiarized hits, is one of 10 iconic and beloved Foster classics arranged by Mark Hayes in The Stephen Foster Collection. Energetic and playful, “Camptown Races” embodies all of the illicit excitement of betting on horse racing, which was banned outright in Foster’s native Pennsylvania in 1820.

Camptown Races

A vivid description of the sights and sounds of the racetrack is found in the lyrics, while the accompaniment captures the trotting, bobbing, and galloping of the horses. Hayes adds some humorous touches to the arrangement as well: the verse that starts “Ol’ muley cow come on to the track” plods along at a slower tempo, with frequent stops and starts, before settling into a jaunty waltz feel in one at the familiar chorus of “Goin’ to run all night!”

“Beautiful Dreamer,” the song perhaps most closely associated with Foster, is also another standout selection from The Stephen Foster Collection. Though widely advertised by publishers as “the last song Stephen Foster ever wrote,” it appears that it was actually written more than a year before his untimely demise. A tender lullaby, Foster’s original music and words are deeply moving. Mark Hayes’s arrangement features softly undulating arpeggiated piano accompaniment and freedom of tempo, encouraging expressive performance.

Over the course of his 20-year career as a songwriter, Stephen Foster wrote more than 280 songs and even though it was a short career, Foster’s work has sustained his legacy for over 190 years. To learn more about The Stephen Foster Collection, visit To watch the trailer, visit

Playfulness Is an Attitude: A Practice That Revitalizes Teaching and Learning

Peggy D. BennettBy Peggy D. Bennett
Professor Emerita of Music Education at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College

With so many restrictions, constrictions, and curricular demands made of educators, your classes and lessons can seem not your own. It can feel as if your aliveness in your classroom has been systematically eroded. And, if you feel depleted of vitality, your students may feel that also. Reviving the passion and enjoyment in teaching and learning is key to offering your best teaching to your students. And, I believe that imaginative playfulness is an extraordinarily effective way to revitalize your energy, your passion, and your enJOYment for teaching.

Playfulness is an attitude. It is a twinkle in the eye and an open, encouraging (sometimes smiling) face to accompany open-ended questions: “I wonder what would happen if …” “Describe what you see …” It is a loosening of rules in order to welcome spontaneity and surprise. Playfulness is the tapping of imaginations as students contribute images and ideas for a rhyme, song, or instrumental recording. It is inventing ways to elicit imaginations and verbalizations as we lead children to study and perform music. It is demonstrating the inflected speech, conversational curiosity, and spontaneous delight that we would like to see in our students as well as ourselves. In short, playfulness can make music come alive for both children and teachers.

To play with nursery rhymes, consider asking these kinds of questions: “Why did that mouse run all the way up to the top of the grandfather clock?” “When the mouse looked down from the top of the clock, what did it see?” Questions such as these help prepare children to create a scene from their own imaginations as they explore the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Children can also be “plopped” into the story by giving them a first person voice as the scene unfolds: “Brandon, you are the little mouse. What caused you to run all the way up to the top of that clock?” “Katie mouse, when you looked down to the floor and spotted that cat, were you worried? Why not? How did you know that cat?”

Imaginative play with music masterworks helps children embrace them as beloved treasures and pave the way for listening again and again. Floating down the Moldau River with their friends on a beautiful boat and stopping along the way to describe what they see on the riverbanks can keep children engaged in “performing” Smetana’s symphonic poem about that river. “Oh, my goodness. Look at that crowd of people over there near the Moldau River. What do you think they are doing?” As Americans in Paris with the teacher as the Tour Guide, children stop when Gershwin’s music pauses and the guide tells them about a famous Paris bakery that makes delicious food. “What will you buy when we go into that bakery? … Oh, what kind of cake is your favorite?” The Americans in Paris can also encounter the wild Paris traffic as they try to cross a busy street with very fast drivers, drivers who are also amazingly safe and skillful because they rarely cause a collision.

Tapping into children’s imaginations through playful questions and story-making creates a unique experience with a song, rhyme, or masterwork. Stories give songs, rhymes, and instrumental works meaningful context, especially when the story is created (or partially created) by the children. The images and stories your students create are uniquely theirs for that song. Singing “Skip to My Lou” with “little red wagon painted blue,” one class may decide that the red wagon was painted blue because they didn’t have any more red paint. Another class may decide they painted the red wagon because blue is their favorite color. In answer to “Where are you taking your newly painted wagon?” Joshua may answer “to the store to get some candy.” Kaeli may answer “to my friend’s house so we can take our dolls for a ride.”

Follow-up questions and comments are especially important for energizing imaginative play. To follow up with Joshua’s trip to the candy store, you might ask “What is your favorite candy? … Oh, I like those, too!” “Do you plan to share it with anyone when you get home? … Is it your sister’s favorite candy, too?” “How much do you think it will cost? … That seems like a bargain to me!” With Kaeli, you might continue with “What is the name of your doll? … What an interesting name!” “Where did you get your doll? … Wasn’t that a nice birthday surprise!” “Where will you take your dolls in your wagon? … Be sure to be safe and watch for traffic as you take a trip around your neighborhood.” Frequently interspersing story-making with repeating the song, rhyme, or recording is critical to these questions energizing rather than bogging down the pace of the lesson.

Playfulness does not necessarily involve playing a “game.” But, when playfulness sets the tone for the plans we make, the questions we ask, the inviting facial expressions we display, the trust we show in venturing into a new way of interacting, and the spontaneous decisions we make based on students’ verbal, physical, and musical responses, teachers and students can regain vitality, their sense of liveliness for learning and teaching. And, when we infuse a song with context of meaning by giving it an imaginative story, we sing the song with meaning: we sing it more musically.

You may be wondering how you will find the time to be playful with music activities, given your schedule demands. My experience with infusing imaginative play into songs, rhymes, and classics has convinced me that a brief investment of story-making can transform our experience with the evolving study of the music. I most often hear an energized expressiveness in singing, speaking, and moving as a consequence of children’s creative responses to my open-ended questions. And, when I hear expressive, fluent singing and speaking of songs and rhymes, and see energized, sensitive movement to recordings, I know that we are making music musically.

Activities cited here are published by Alfred Music and may be found in:

Bennett, P.D. (2012). Playing with the Classics: Music Masterworks for Children, Volume 2.

Bennett, P.D. (2011). Playing with the Classics: Music Masterworks for Children, Volume 1.

Bennett, P.D. (2010). RhymePlay: Playing with Children and Mother Goose.

Activities may also be seen at SongWorks for Children: A Video Library of Children Making Music

Let’s Duet!

Jeanine M. JacobsonBy Gayle Kowalchyk and E. L. Lancaster

Playing the piano can be a lonely activity. Students typically have a private lesson each week and then must practice by themselves at home until the next lesson. We once interviewed a transfer student whose mother asked, “Is there any way you can take piano lessons without having to practice?” A closer look at the student’s after-school schedule revealed the real nature of the mother’s question: Her daughter was involved in dancing, cheerleading, and competitive diving. Every time she had to “practice” these sports, she was with a group of her friends. Piano practice simply was going to be “no fun” because she would have to practice by herself. Therefore, could she just skip the “practicing” part of the whole deal?

In situations like this, piano duets can be a real “pupil saver” and “lesson saver.” In addition to developing musicianship and ensemble performance skills, duets also increase our students’ sight-reading abilities, musical understanding, rhythmic awareness, and listening skills. And perhaps, most importantly, they provide a social outlet for students.

We are big believers in the benefits of piano duets in the teaching curriculum. A long-standing tradition in our studio was that February was Ensemble Month. Each year, after the winter holiday break, we assigned every student a duet. This created a “kick start” to the New Year. During the months of January and February, students received three private lessons and one group lesson each month. The private lessons were used to hone their individual duet parts, and the group lessons provided the opportunity for the duet partners to rehearse together. Finally, at the end of February, a duet performance class was held where the students could show off their ensemble and musical skills with one another.

The music written for piano duet (one piano, four hands) is extremely diverse and ranges in difficulty from beginner to concert artist. It includes music written for pedagogical purposes, music for social occasions (especially popular in the 19th century when pianos outnumbered bathtubs in homes), concert pieces, and transcriptions. The first known keyboard duets were written well before the piano was invented!

Bringing ensemble playing into the lesson is as easy as opening up the first level of the method book. Today’s educational composers understand the benefits of ensemble playing and often incorporate teacher duets into the lesson book at the beginning levels. From the very first lesson, Premier Piano Course provides an optional teacher duet for every piece in the Lesson Book. In addition to creating a steady rhythmic background, the teacher duets supply harmony and a variety of music styles so that the student’s ear is developed from the beginning as well.

As students progress, however, they can experience the joy of playing duets with their peers. Finding easy-level duets that with equally difficult primo and secondo parts can be hard. Keeping this in mind, we asked eight of America’s favorite supplementary composers to write easy duets that begin at the 1B level in Premier Piano Course. Each level contains music by Dennis Alexander, Melody Bober, Tom Gerou, Carol Matz, Martha Mier, Wynn-Anne Rossi, Mike Springer, and Robert Vandall. You can imagine that with this variety of composers, there is a wide range of styles in each volume as well. From lyrical ballades to jazzy, toe-tapping pieces, these books have it all and are now available in Levels 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4.

“Switcheroo Boogie” by Melody Bober from Duet 1B is a fun boogie-woogie piece. Not only will audiences enjoy its infectious style, but they will be delighted to see that the players trade places as they are playing the duet! Preparing the “switcheroo” carefully is critical to its execution and the success of the performance.

In measure 21 of both parts, the performers begin to move. At this measure, the primo player stands up and circles behind the bench. As the primo player is doing this, the secondo player is moving up the bench while playing measures 21-24. Each player must be in his/her new place by measure 25! It is helpful to mark this measure with a red arrow so that their eyes can find the new starting place easily. Also, choosing an appropriate tempo is crucial to executing this part of the piece. While it is marked “Lively,” a tempo that is too fast will make it difficult for the primo player to get up and around the bench in time to be seated for measure 25. (See attached examples.)

Switcheroo Boogie

It is also helpful to mark on the score who is responsible for turning the page. During the performance, it is easy to be excited and forget this important detail. We sometimes even mark “No turn” on a part just to remind one performer to let the other person turn the page. In this piece, it is easier for the secondo player to turn the pages. When the secondo is thoroughly comfortable with the part, it may be possible to play the RH Middle C in measures 29 and 31 with the LH thumb, giving the player more time to turn the page with the right hand.

Many musical skills such as balance and shaping phrases can be reinforced when playing duets. A helpful rehearsal technique is to have students play only when the melody is in their part. This becomes a great listening activity as well. The lyrical “Reach for the Stars” by Dennis Alexander in Duet 2A is a perfect piece for working on this concept. First, students must determine exactly what the melody is. Next, they go through the score and mark each melodic entrance with an “M.” Finally, they play the piece together, but only the sections marked with an “M.” This allows them to see and hear where and when they have the melody. (See attached examples.)

Switcheroo Boogie

Another helpful rehearsal technique is to number all of the measures. Typically, measure numbers appear at the first measure of each line. Filling in the remaining measures saves time in the rehearsal by helping students pinpoint exactly which measure needs their attention.

Duets can be used as supplementary material for any method or course of study. In addition, they make excellent repertoire selections for group lessons, ensemble classes, recitals, or “monster” concerts. Students will be motivated by music-making with their friends while developing skills in ensemble performance.

Professional Piano Teaching: Useful Guides for New and Experienced Teachers

By Jeanine M. Jacobson
Jeanine M. Jacobson
I truly believe that piano teaching is a profession. Consequently, I was motivated to spend the last twenty years of my life writing, editing, and refining the two volumes of Professional Piano Teaching to aid both students and teachers in their teaching endeavors. The books are designed for both university piano pedagogy students and for independent piano teachers. In an easy-to-read style and format they provide both the experienced and new teacher with step-by-step procedures for HOW to teach piano students, leading both the teacher and student toward successful learning at the keyboard. An abundance of musical examples are included to illustrate the topics discussed. Pedagogy instructors at universities will find these books save them time. Pedagogy students can easily read at least one chapter each week and complete the projects provided at the end of each chapter. Experienced teachers will find useful information and teaching strategies.

Volume 1: In the first volume, strong pedagogical principles are applied to beginning and elementary teaching. Teachers will learn about what it means to be a professional piano teacher and how to develop a personal teaching philosophy.  They will become acquainted with the principles of learning and how to teach by helping students discover information as well as learn by rote. Teachers will explore how to prevent errors, present concepts and skills in a systematic way and teach to individual learning styles.

Readers will become aware of the various types of beginning methods and learn to evaluate methods by applying a wide range of criteria. They will also learn how to determine the difficulty of pieces, organize pieces in the proper teaching order and craft piece summaries, effective lessons plans, and assignments. Step-by-step approaches are provided for teaching both rhythm and pitch reading. Technique is taught from the natural way to play and the use of the entire arm to assist the hand and fingers, emphasizing that the sound will be beautiful when the use of the body is effortless.

Teachers will become familiar with the role of aural development, music literacy and creative activities in the development of musicality. They will learn to use these tools to lead students to hear and understand the character of pieces and how they can make pieces come alive by applying dynamics, articulation and phrasing.

Unique strategies for group teaching, teaching pre-schoolers, and teaching adults are thoroughly discussed in separate chapters. Teaching strategies for both standard elementary repertoire and familiar styles of music are provided.

Part of professional piano teaching includes running a piano studio in a businesslike and professional manner. This first volume provides guidelines for teaching in a home studio, in students’ homes, in an established program, or in a rented space. It provides advice for acquiring students, marketing, establishing tuition, scheduling lessons, and communicating with parents. This chapter helps one learn how to use one’s personal teaching philosophy to develop a studio policy that includes tuition payment policies, lesson attendance, practice requirements, and performance participation. This chapter includes numerous sample forms for all aspects of running a piano studio.

The first volume concludes with a chapter to help teachers evaluate their own teaching. Effective and ineffective teaching strategies are listed and criteria and evaluation formats are provided for a variety of ways to critique one’s own teaching.

Volume 2: This volume offers insight into the teaching of intermediate and early- advance-level students.  Like the first volume, the same strong pedagogical principles are now applied to the teaching of students at these levels. What defines intermediate levels and the early advanced levels is clearly articulated.  Helpful teaching strategies are provided to assist students in progressing from the elementary levels into the intermediate level and from the intermediate level into the early-advanced level. Topics include how to understand and teach teenagers, how to help transition a transfer student into one’s studio and how to prepare a student for a college audition.

Rhythm, reading and technique are approached using the same strong pedagogical principles as in volume one and applied to the higher levels of piano learning. The technique chapter helps teachers learn how to recognize and alleviate excess tension in their students’ playing by understanding the principles of movement as it applies to piano playing. It also explores the role and use of the fingers, hand, wrists, and arms at the keyboard.

Teachers are guided to observe the elements of rhythm, pitch, and sound and how these observations coupled with strong aural skills lead students to artistic interpretation. Criteria for determining the style of pieces is provided and teachers are given a template for both internal and external evidence within pieces that will ultimately lead to appropriate stylistic interpretation.

The role of intrinsic motivation in successful teaching and learning of piano music focuses on how to teach in ways that will assure student motivation and lead toward effective and efficient practice. A multitude of practice strategies are described in detail and applied to sections of student repertoire.

A thorough discussion of the role of memory in piano performance provides teachers with a detailed analysis of the three phases of memory, the factors that influence the memory process, and the various types of memory—kinesthetic, tactile, pitch, rhythm, aural, visual, and intellectual. A step-by-step process for developing intellectual memory is applied to a section of a piece. Practice routines for developing continuity in performance are also included as are strategies for controlling performance anxiety.

Summaries and Projects: Both books have summaries and projects at the end of each chapter (See the attached examples from Chapter 1 of Volume 2). Unique projects are provided for both new teachers and for experienced teachers. Teachers are encouraged to apply what they have learned in each chapter to teaching before going to another chapter.

Summaries & Projects

The quest for improvement of piano teaching skills never ends. Whether you are a new teacher or an experienced teacher refining your skills, I hope that Professional Piano Teaching will aid you in your journey. I wish you continued success as you pursue your career in professional piano teaching.