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Five Qualities of an Outstanding Piano Teacher


By Heidi Smith

The majority of musicians have multiple teachers throughout their careers and can probably easily recall the ones who really stand out as most effective. What is it that sets them apart? What characteristics do those teachers share? I recently watched an interview on The Piano Mag Blog with pianist Emanuel Ax, and greatly appreciated his insightful comments about the important role and characteristics of great teachers. His thoughts on what it means to excel in that area encouraged me to further expand upon these ideas, and how I can apply these qualities in my own teaching.

1. Patient

An outstanding teacher demonstrates incredible patience. It’s a pretty self-explanatory statement! Students all learn at different paces, respond better to one style of teaching over another, or—let’s be honest—just don’t want to learn at all. An effective teacher demonstrates patience through these good and bad days, and is ready to adapt for each student and present information in the way that each student learns best.

2. Skilled

Excellent teachers possess advanced technical ability. You’ve heard the old saying, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” That is absolutely not true. If you cannot do it yourself, you won’t be able to describe or demonstrate the concept to a student. If you don’t have a thorough understanding of a concept, how will you be able to help a student understand it? If you don’t possess the technical ability to demonstrate a particular fingering or scale, etc., you will not be able to guide a student to mastery of that technique.

3. Fun

An inspiring teacher makes learning fun! It’s rare for a student to be intrinsically motivated and ready to learn for just the sake of learning itself. Teachers have to provide students with educational fun. Learning doesn’t have to be boring! Use colored pencils, games . . . engage with your students and make music lessons an experience they look forward to every week. Students love a good joke about the title of a piece or the lyrics or an unexpected articulation.

4. Serious

However fun music may be (and it is!), there are times when you have to just buckle down and focus. Great teachers also provide a serious element to the music lesson. Music is a language and learning any new language is plain hard work.  It’s our job as teachers to help nurture that focus in students and provide an atmosphere where they can learn.

5. Joyful

A truly motivating teacher exudes genuine joy for a student. There’s nothing more exciting, as a student, than when your teacher is as excited as you are! Whether it’s enthusiasm over a new piece, an eagerness to hear about their week, or being proud of their progress, our joy in lessons is powerful and contagious. It shows students that we care about them and that we are as invested in their lessons as they are.

The work of music teachers is vitally important. We have the opportunity to touch so many lives and have a lasting influence. In reference to teaching, Emanuel Ax said, “That’s the hardest thing that requires the most talent and the most dedication.” To all you teachers out there who are patient, skilled, fun, serious, and joyful—keep doing what you’re doing! You are outstanding and having an immeasurable impact on the lives of all of your students.


Heidi Smith earned her Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy from The Master’s University in Southern California. She has been teaching privately for over 6 years, and is the Product Marketing Manager for Piano at Alfred Music. Heidi loves coffee and has a collection of exciting mugs!

Top 10 Reasons to Perform Musicals in School


In our age of the Internet, social media, reality television and other “worthy” pursuits that can steal away our students’ attention, are musicals still worth preparing? Of course, my answer is a resounding “YES”!

Here are my top 10 reasons for doing a musical once, twice, or even three times this year (and in years to come). And they’re based not only on my personal experience through the years, but what I’ve heard from countless others over the last three decades:

  1. The Event Factor. Since musicals aren’t performed on a regular basis, whenever they are performed, they’re an event. They can build excitement and a real positive “buzz” in the classroom.
  2. Dramatic Impact. There’s no question we live now more than ever in a fast-paced, visual world. Drama—especially when connected with music—offers a way to tell a story that can leave an indelible impact on its performers and listeners.
  3. Greater Depth. A musical offers a longer time to “plumb the depths” of any given subject, so the potential impact on students is exponentially increased.
  4. Growth. Musicals tend to offer healthy musical challenges that students might not experience otherwise. This can contribute to a growth in confidence and musical understanding.
  5. Outreach. A one-time special event musical is a great excuse to invite friends, family, and community members and showcase your student’s hard work.
  6. Bonding. An event tends to “rally” a classroom together and generate excitement among students. Everyone becomes part of the musical ‘team.’ If there are a few extra rehearsals to pull the musical together, those offer an opportunity for greater bonding between the teacher and students.
  7. Wider Involvement. A musical offers a chance for parents and even more students to get involved, too! They can help with design, building or painting (if there’s a set); audio/visuals (sound, lights, PowerPoint, and/or video); costumes (if there are any, of course), and more.
  8. Encourages Participation. There’s no question that, in general, musicals sometimes take a recruiting process to get students to audition. Use the audition process as another means of outreach to excite students to be a part of the fun!
  9. Dinner or Dessert Theatre. Who doesn’t love the mixture of food and musicals?! Contribute to the ‘event’ factor by offering some appetizers and baked goods. Another great avenue to get the parents involved!
  10. Memories. Students will fondly recall the time they were the singing sidekick or a belting baritone! Memories are another way to help share the joy of making music for years to come.

Bottom line: Musicals—when carefully chosen, prepared, and performed—can create a lasting impact on those who experience them. And that is worth “the roar of the greasepaint, and the smell of the crowd!”



Mark Cabaniss is a music publisher, producer, writer, and educator. He is President/CEO of Jubilate Music Group, based in Brentwood, Tennessee. Two of his elementary musicals (Tom Sawyer & Company and Gilbert and Sullivan Rock!) are published by Alfred Music.



Teaching Masterworks to Developing Choirs

Dr. Russell L. Robinson
Emeritus Professor of Music Education, University of Florida
Composer, Arranger, Consultant, Speaker

I have been arranging masterworks for young choirs for over 20 years, from madrigals to larger choral classics to recently arranged solo masterworks for choirs. It has been my goal to create choral music for young choirs (elementary through high school, and even college choirs who have many non-music majors) to help elevate their choral sound and be proud of their musical results.

You must start with a great piece of music. We cannot make great arrangements out of bad pieces. Classics that have stood the test of time are best. From some of my first arrangements such as: “Sing We and Chant It” (Morley/Robinson), “In These Delightful Pleasant Groves” (Purcell/Robinson), “Sing Unto God” (Handel/Robinson), and “How Lovely Are the Messengers” (Mendelssohn/Robinson) to lately taking solo works and arranging them for choirs. Pieces such as Faure’s “Pie Jesu” (ed. and arr. Robinson) and the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” (arr. Robinson) are good examples of this. These timeless melodies are often familiar to singers and audiences, but not in a choral setting.

Let me for the moment focus on the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria.” As the performance notes say, this piece was originally written by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) as his “Prelude No. 1 in C major” for
piano (clavier) and later a melody was composed by Charles Gounod for solo violin. The traditional “Ave Maria” lyrics were added later. Since that time, such famous soloists as Placido Domingo, Jackie Evancho, Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli have performed this piece. So, there is a good chance that many audience members will have heard the melody and perhaps the singers themselves. It’s timeless and beautiful.

So how does one arrange these masterworks, such as the “Ave Maria,” to be accessible for young choirs or inexperienced singers?

There are many considerations when writing such arrangements of classics regardless of their style. First, the ranges should be treated intentionally. If it is a 3-part mixed (where the third part is for changed or changing male voices and uses a range from F below middle C to D above middle C) or a SAB arrangement, and the boys/men’s voices can go lower, I try to “think like a young man” when writing their parts. Avoidance of great leaps in the intervals is essential. And, in the case of the “Ave Maria”—allowing parts other than the Soprano to sing the melody. In addition, the piano part should subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reinforce the parts to assist the singers. An arranger of these masterworks should not alter the musical or lyrical qualities of the original piece. I always feel like the original composers are looking over my shoulder from above, and I want their “ok” in what I’m writing.

What about responsibilities of the director/teacher and singers?

Pure vowels are essential regardless of language! All vowels should be sung with a bit of “oo” in them. In other words, ah-vowels should be sung “aw”—ee-vowels should be sung with an “ee” in the inside of the mouth and an “oo” vowel on the lips to keep the vowel from spreading. For more information on these concepts, see these recommended Alfred Music publications: The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book (Robinson/Althouse), Creative Rehearsal Techniques for Today’s Choral Classroom (Robinson), and Middle School Singers: Turning Their Energy into Wonderful Choirs (Robinson).

Perhaps most importantly, pay close attention to dynamics and text accents. There should be an audible difference between piano and mezzo forte. I hear too many choirs that sing with a limited range of dynamics, usually from mezzo forte to forte. Dynamics contrasts are essential. And, text accents—no two syllables or words should be sung at the same volume, regardless of language. In just the two words “Ave Maria” we have an example of text accent treatment. “Ave” should be sung with an accent on the first syllable and a dramatically softer second syllable. The same with “Maria” where there are three syllables. The second syllable gets the accent and the first and third are unaccented.

Taking into account these considerations and steps—a great original masterwork, along with a well-written arrangement, and finally pure vowels, dynamic contrasts, and text accents will lead singers to making beautiful music with these classics.

Assembling a Vocal Library

By Sally K. Albrecht

Growing up, I was always busy as an accompanist. I played for musicals, choirs, solo singers, and instrumentalists alike. When I was in middle school, I accompanied my two older high school sisters and their singing friends at vocal solo contests all over the state of Ohio. Generally, I was handed a vocal collection or some kind of book or piece of sheet music from which to play.

In my junior year of college, I began taking some voice lessons. My teacher always insisted I purchase the necessary books at the beginning of each semester, even if we were only going to study one or two songs from the collection.

My next voice teacher didn’t do that. She just made me photocopies of specific songs from her fabulous library of music. It saved me some money at the time, but a few years down the road, when I was teaching and wanted to perform those songs or see what else of interest might have been in those collections, I had no way of knowing where those treasures had come from! (And way back then, in the dark ages, I couldn’t just search a song title on the internet to find out!)

Maybe I didn’t know all of the rules about photocopying then, but I have a feeling my instructor did. And, to be honest, I did toss those illegal copies many years (and moves) ago. But I still really wish I had at least some of those songs/books in my vocal library.

So do your students a favor: work with them to purchase those wonderful and important tools called vocal anthologies. What a great investment it will be for their future. Teach your singers how to order music from a retailer. Help them start to assemble an appropriate, important, and wonderful vocal library, containing a variety of literature that will help them grow as performers.

Here’s my list of top “basic” books from Alfred Music that will stand the test of time in your vocal library. Most are available in Medium High and Medium Low voicings, with or without accompaniment CDs.

1. 26 Italian Songs and AriasEd. by John Glenn Paton. Contains the most important songs and arias, along with background information and translations. By far, the best edition on the market.

2. Singer’s Library of SongCompiled & Ed. by Patrick M. Liebergen. Features 37 songs from the Medieval era through the 20th Century, with historical information, IPA, and translations where needed. Includes a few songs in several different languages, plus a handful of folk songs and spirituals… something for everyone. An excellent potpourri for developing vocalists.

3. Folk Songs for Solo SingersCompiled & Ed. by Jay Althouse. Volume 1 contains 11 arrangements (including the favorite contest solo “Homeward Bound”). I also enjoy the variety of songs in Volume 2 (features 14 arrangements). You’ll also see another great choice, American Folk Songs for Solo Singers!

4. The Spirituals of Harry T. BurleighArr. by Harry T. Burleigh. An incredible anthology of 48 awesome spiritual settings. Did you know that we recorded accompaniment CDs (set of 2) for this collection? There’s a reason most of these arrangements have been in print continuously since around 1920. Did I mention that these arrangements are truly awesome?

5. Favorite Sacred Classics for Solo SingersCompiled & Ed. by Patrick M. Liebergen. Features 18 well-known sacred classics by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. You’ll be ready to sing in any church or recital hall.

6. Pathways of SongCompiled, arr., translated, and ed. Frank LaForge & Will Earhart. This comprehensive series offers concert songs in appropriate vocal ranges for the voice student, by composers such as Schubert, Brahms, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. The series is available by volume or a compilation of the best songs from every volume!

7. Christmas for Solo SingersEd. Jay Althouse. This books compiles some of the most well-known and time-tested seasonal favorites. Great for seasonal recitals and concerts. Take this book with you to Grandma’s house on Christmas day, and you’ll get the whole family singing along!

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 Students 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!

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

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.