Reading Music in Your Comfort Zone

00-42546By Tom Dempsey

As guitarists, for better or worse, we tend to approach the instrument from a visual and/or tactile perspective. We are first introduced to fingerings, grips, diagrams, and other references that we tend to internalize from either one or a combination of these perspectives. As a matter of entry to the instrument this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is in how we approach it as students, and eventually as teachers that allows us to harness the true power of this perspective.

When students first learn how to read music on the guitar there is a tendency to be disconnected from previous knowledge acquired on the instrument. A more effective way to approach reading on the guitar is to connect to prior knowledge or skills acquired. Consider this fingering of the F major scale:


As students practice learning this scale they should also practice reading the scale. This will help to connect the eyes, brain and fingers together so that when you see that first note you will know that it is an F played on the first fret of the 6th string. In doing so students will soon be able to connect something that is familiar, a scale fingering, with something that might be less familiar like reading music. Through making this connection reading music starts to be come a more comfortable experience.

Once a student begins to feel a connection with the scale fingering of the major scale and the notes on the staff, consider presenting a melody found in the Guitar 101, Book 2:

Guitar 101 Melody

When doing so a connection should be made to the previous F major scale fingering. This allows us to access a certain comfort zone and connect to prior knowledge. Through these types of connections we are able to feel more comfortable and confident reading music on the guitar. Once we start to move up the neck of the guitar learning additional fingerings for our F major scale we can begin to connect to those respective fingerings. In doing so we are now starting to read all over the neck of the guitar. This allows us to have a new level of freedom throughout the entire fret board.

Whether you are trying to look for new strategies to read music or you are searching for new methods to utilize when teaching students to read music consider the following:

1. Make connections to prior knowledge and skills
2. Practice scales while reading the music in an effort to create familiarity through these connections
3. Present reading examples of simple diatonic melodies
4. Connect those melodies to scale fingerings
5. Connect melodies to additional scale fingerings up the neck

When these types of methods are put in place reading music begins to become a less complicated experience. Through connecting to prior knowledge you will begin to read music in your comfort zone.

Tom Dempsey is a New York based jazz guitar performer, recording artist, and educator. He is the author of four books for Alfred Music and the co-author of both volumes of the new Guitar 101 series. Currently Tom is an Associate Professor of Music at LaGuardia Community College as well as an instructor at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Preparing to Improvise

BJim Snideroy Jim Snidero

Improvisation is a scary proposition for many music students and teachers. But the word “improvisation” is fairly misleading, as much of what an improviser uses to create a solo is actually preconceived, and therefore can be learned and developed.

Preconceived concepts regarding form, rhythm, melody, harmony and importantly, solo construction, are some of the elements that are tirelessly practiced and perfected by great improvisers (e.g. masters). This creates a foundation for what will be played. Furthermore, masters have preconceived concepts regarding how they will play. Tone, technique, time feel, articulation, phrasing and vibrato style are often the thing that most identifies a master, being carefully formulated and developed, then repeated over and over again.

What separates an improvisation master from everyone else is (1) the quality and quantity of what’s preconceived, (2) art and, (3) taste. The good news is that (1) can be studied and practiced to the point that you can gain control over a massive amount of preconceived concepts. The bad news is that not everyone can create a work of art, and not everyone has exquisite taste.

Masters strike a balance between preconceived concepts and going with the moment, letting their “spirit,” for lack of a better term, lead them to very human expression. This creates a kind of inspired flow. And this sense of balance between essentially “knowing and not knowing,” to quote Chick Corea from a 1976 Keyboard Player magazine article, is informed by incredible taste and yes, talent. But here’s the thing: it’s very tough to create (2) and (3) without (1)! And (1) is something that most definitely can learned.

There’s a little secret that masters know regarding preconceived vocabulary. To quote Chick again from the same article:

“The myth is that you always have to play something different to be spontaneous. But that’s not true. What’s important is how “there” you are when you’re playing: that’s really the point. Good music is just good music whether it’s composed, improvised or whatever.”

No matter how many times you play an idea, if you are “in the moment,” it is spontaneous and can never actually be played the exact same way again, as no one ever experiences a moment exactly the same way. Charlie Parker played some of his signature ideas thousands of times, but they never sounded exactly alike. The same can be said about virtually every master. So preconceived vocabulary is crucial to the creative process.

Transcribing a solo is the best way to build vocabulary, but quality books are also a good source. For example, the new edition of the Jazz Conception series contains a section on improvisation, extracting over 100 ideas from 21 etudes over various common chord progressions. Vocabulary and context!

Once ideas are committed to memory, you then have material to develop both timing and balance. If one idea is active, dense with notes or rhythms, perhaps the next idea could be static, using just a couple of notes or rhythms. If the contour of an idea ascends, perhaps the next idea might descend, creating a peak. This helps you to develop a sense of balance, maybe even taste.

These instincts then allow you to assemble ideas in a logical and musical manner, often helping to “say” something when improvising. The more material, the more you can say. Eventually, your instincts will allow you to play new things that you hear spontaneously in a musical, logical manner, or react to what your bandmates are playing. You will then be able to balance improvisation between “knowing and not knowing.” It’s powerful stuff, not to mention a whole lot of fun!

Jim Snidero is an alto saxophonist, author and educator living in New York City. He is a Savant recording artist, author of the Jazz Conception series and president of The Jazz Conception Company.

Shop the Jazz Conception series here.

Christmas in October

Gayle KowalchykBy Gayle Kowalchyk

Front porches may be dotted with pumpkins, and you might be pondering what kind of candy to buy for your Halloween trick-or-treaters, but it definitely is not too soon to be thinking about Christmas music for your piano students. In fact, in my piano studio, students start working on their holiday music on November 1st. I use the month of October to choose the collections they will be using.

Joel was the very first piano student I had in our studio in Norman, Oklahoma (this was many years ago!). Joel and I hit it off immediately. He was a transfer student in the fourth grade when he began with me, and he arrived at each lesson eager to learn and to share his interests with me. Over the years, I learned a lot about what books he liked to read, What Child Is This?games he liked to play, and the world of scouting (he went on to become an Eagle Scout). One thing that we had in common was that we both loved the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” This was the only song Joel wanted to play at Christmas, so each year, I had the task of finding a new, harder arrangement for him to play. When he graduated from high school and headed off to college, my graduation gift for him was my own arrangement of this beautiful carol dedicated to him.

At that time, the only Christmas music available for piano students to play were arrangements of traditional carols or secular songs. Year after year, the choices remained the same even though new arrangements were always being written and published. I remember a year when one of my students asked, “Aren’t there any new Christmas songs?” The answer was “no.”

That was then. Today, I could answer that same question with a resounding “yes!” Contemporary Christian music has become a popular source of supplementary Christmas music for piano students of all ages. Christmas Praise music is a genre that is perfect for students who know this music and want to perform it as well as for students (and teachers!) who are looking for new music that celebrates the season. Alfred Music has collections at several different levels that are sure to fit beautifully into your teaching this fall.

My husband, E. L. Lancaster, and I arranged some songs from this rich genre for two easy books, Pre-Reading Book of Christmas Praise and First Book of Christmas Praise. Pre-Reading Book of Christmas Praise has 11 solos that are perfect for beginning pianists. Even students who have only had a few weeks of study or have limited skills in note reading will enjoy playing this music.

“How Many Kings” is an example of how the pieces are arranged for this level. How Many Kings (Pre-Reading)Melodies in this collection are divided between the hands and are shown on the page using pre-reading notation. A keyboard chart at the top of the page shows students where to place their hands. Some melodies remain within a single position (as this one does), but others use accidentals that require movement out of the position. While the rhythm of this melody is easy, there are some pieces for which the rhythm notation may be unfamiliar. In these cases, students will usually play the rhythm correctly by ear, or it can be learned quickly by rote. Each piece also has an optional accompaniment for teacher or parent. These accompaniments give the pieces richer sounds and can aid the student with rhythmic security.

How Many KingsFor students who are just beginning to read music, First Book of Christmas Praise contains the same pieces as Pre-Reading Book of Christmas Praise notated on the staff. By comparing the two versions of “How Many Kings,” you can see that everything remains the same except for the way the melody is notated.



“Bethlehem Morning,” also foundBethlehem Morning in each volume, is another favorite of students. These two books offer a fun way to reinforce reading and rhythmic skills while enjoying the music of Christmas. (Scroll through attachment to see both sample pages.)




Christian Hits for Christmas, arranged by Melody Bober, features 24 arrangements of contemporary songs for late intermediate to early advanced pianists. These are hits that are frequently heard on Christian radio and Not That Far from Bethlehemperformed in contemporary church services during the Christmas season. I first heard of “Not that Far from Bethlehem” years ago when I became a fan of the female vocal group Point of Grace (two of the original members are from Norman, Oklahoma), and this song was on one of their Christmas albums. I was thrilled to see that Melody had arranged it for this volume. Students can further their skills in lyrical playing and balance between melody and accompaniment while enjoying the gentle beauty of this song.

One Small Child“One Small Child” is an excellent arrangement for analyzing chords in both root position and inversions. Students can study the chordal treatments in this piece and then take these ideas to use in harmonizing other melodies.
This Baby“This Baby” combines “What Child Is This?” with a Steven Curtis Chapman classic. Even Joel would like this combination!



Carol Tornquist’s’ Praise Solos for ChristmMary, Did You Know?as contains 40 advanced arrangements of Contemporary Christian favorites. If you (or your students) play in church, this collection will be a valuable resource as it can be used for services throughout the holiday season. Two of my favorite pieces are in this collection. “Mary Did You Know?” is a hauntingly beautiful piece (look for a recording of a vocal performance on You Tube by Jubilant Sykes) that is immensely powerful.


Breath of Heaven“Breath of Heaven” by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton is equally satisfying to play. Students will want to bring out the left-hand melody on the first page. Both pieces offer students the opportunity to create musical performances while experiencing such things as modulation and key changes, meter changes, and other musical elements.

While the calendar and the weather do not indicate that Christmas is on the way, it is just around the corner. Take time today to choose holiday music for your students, and then dig into that bag of Halloween candy to treat yourself!

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. (Click the image below and scroll through to see all the sample pages).
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. (Click the image below and scroll through to see all the sample pages).
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