Author Archives: pennyl

Learning is all about making Connections.

Sophia figures out the polyrhythm 3 against 2.

Piano lessons in January amaze me. One would think that students would be tired from the glitter and promise of the December holiday season. It’s a long way off to the next school vacation. The concrete goals of a holiday recital are past. The next practice incentives and recitals are still just in my head, not my students. Here in New England, many students ski and their energies are often focused outside, not in. It’s a back to the basics kind of month…getting scales up and running. Reminding students that music theory is important homework. Getting back to learning new literature, which might not be as familiar as Christmas music.

But just when I think a Saturday morning of teaching on a dull, grey January day is going to be hard, no matter how much I put on a cheery face…I am almost always utterly surprised. The kids are getting it! They are making connections on their own and eager to share their discoveries with me! I always hope that each lesson is more about sharing than my directing every student’s move. And it was just that this past Saturday. First up, Aidan. I showed him a piece called “Mist” by Clyde Poole in the Royal Conservatoire Repertoire book, for our upcoming recital based on Handel and his “water” music for King George I. I played the piece. We looked for patterns. And suddenly Aidan’s eyes lit up. “The skips of thirds and fifths remind me of the opening of my favorite Japanese Anime cartoon theme song Castle in the sky! So we looked it up on You Tube. And he was right. I bet Aidan will look forward to practicing this week.

Audrey is just starting to read music. And because learning to read a new language is hard, so very hard, her practicing had slackened a bit…no, a lot.   But this day, she came bounding into the studio…”Teacher Penny, Teacher Penny, I can play this whole book! And then and there, she took out her Music for Little Mozarts and indeed played through the entire book. Taking a breath, we started to talk about one of the pieces. We identified scales and arpeggios in the 8 measures that comprised this song. We talked about repeated notes, because more mistakes in reading take place with repeated notes than just about any other kind of pattern. Our brains just want to experience change…not stasis. But it was Audrey who noticed that the piece was composed using contrary motion…even though she didn’t yet know what contrary motion means. “Teacher Penny…the last half is upside down from the first half!”

Audrey’s sister Alexandra’s lesson was next. And here too…they made an amazing discovery themselves! Alexandra works in Jennifer Eklund’s Piano Pronto series and Alexandra just finished Jennifer’s arrangement of the Bach Minuet in G, simplified of course for the first book. But Audrey also recognized the melody, from a simple line in her Music for Little Mozarts book. The comparison didn’t stop there. The two girls created a duet arrangement, which they played, with only a little help from me to align the rhythms securely.

Sophia, a 9th grader, hadn’t really faced two against three rhythms yet in her lessons. But starting Heller’s Sailors Song we had to come face to face with the first of the difficult sets of polyrhythms often used in 19th century Romantic period music. But Sophia is a mathematical wiz. She stared at the dotted quarter note and eighth note paired against two sets of triplets. I could literally see her mind at work. She started mumbling about fractions and fractions of beats. Before I knew it…she had taken three of my rhythm sticks to represent the triplets and set them up on the music rack of the piano. I added two square stampers. Sophia put it all together, showing where the odd eighth note would fit in between the second and third triple, based on her knowledge of math.

Connections. Making Connections. That’s what all artists’ do. And so can our students.

Published Article: The Joy of El Sistema in your own backyard. Collaborating with the Newburyport Chamber Music Society

Working with Curtis Conservatory Professor Amy Yang in a masterclass in collaboration with the Newburyport Chamber Music Society.

Working with Curtis Conservatory Professor Amy Yang in a masterclass in collaboration with the Newburyport Chamber Music Society.


Sometimes it takes only one student to chart a different course for an entire week of teaching.

I do not know why I had never thought of this before. Removing the music rack on my Baldwin grand during an afternoon of teaching. Many concert artists do it. If music is memorized and the music rack is not needed, that large piece of wood can easily be slid off the piano; opening up the sound even more. Most of my students do not have the space in our town’s colonial era houses to hold even the smallest of grand pianos, so part of the magic of each lesson in the studio is playing on an instrument that produces a big sound. I forget that this is part of the lesson experience, until a student makes an impromptu compliment about how nice it is to play the piano here.

It was September, the beginning of everything new again, in studio lessons. Returning students reviewed their memory lists, but now they were a grade older and year wiser, tanned from summer sun and limbs stretched out from growth spurts, even though they were warned in June that they “are not allowed to grow taller than their teacher.” And indeed, their review pieces had a new spark of energy. September also means, the very first lesson for some. How exciting! I can never truly predict how the first lesson will go…there are so many ways to introduce the piano to students that I have a dozen or more narratives at the ready. But this student, a 5 year old, beginning school and piano lessons at the same time, with all the world before him, needed to know, immediately, how sound is made. Even with careful preparation of standing on the bench to get a glimpse of hammers and felt and dampers wasn’t enough. He had to see ALL of them. So, for the first time ever in my teaching, it occurred to me to remove the music stand.

We spent the remainder of this first half-hour lesson charting the length of the strings and pitch of sound. Using colored felt-tip markers, we drew the harp shape of all 236 strings in decreasing shortness to illustrate sound, low to high.

With little time to put the music rack back in place between student lessons, I left it off for the entire afternoon. And then I left if off for the entire week. Most of my students started the new piano year by reviewing memory work, so having a music rack wasn’t a necessity. But what emerged from this one small change in our environment, sparked curiosity and creativity for everyone.

One student started to improvise on the actual strings inside the piano, because they were now open to feel. This led to a discussion of John Cage, the concept of prepared piano pieces and the handing out of a piece by composer Emma Lou Diemer that includes plucking of the actual strings as part of the composition. What a twist in lessons for this newly minted 5th grader.

Other students renewed their interest in using the pedals…all three of them…because they could now see the repercussion of the damper, una-corda and sostenuto feet levers. We were all starting pieces from John William’s sound score of Harry Potter movies for Halloween…what better way to talk about re-creating the magic and smoke and unpredictable world of Hogwarts in music than asking students to mark in their own pedaling using all three options.

And then there were my seniors, getting ready to send audition tapes with their college applications. What better way to allow them to wallow in their sound up close, as they repeated and worked toward better recordings of their playing? The music was no longer about them. It was about the SOUND. It focused them and they played their best.

A month later, we are all immersed in new pieces, preparing for Halloween and getting reacquainted with technical scale work, theory papers and pushing through practice of hard spots. But I hope the wonder of the piano for these students, with 10,000 moving parts, never goes away.

Our Star Wars Themed Practice Incentive for Winter-Spring 2016

Yes I do use practice incentives in my piano teaching studio. I know sometimes choosing prizes from prize boxes for completed assignments feels like bribery. And counting points earned through practicing using M & M’s or Sweethearts or Candy Corn runs the risk of encouraging consumption of sugared junk food. Would my students really practice for raisins? Maybe chocolate covered ones! But students of music need clear markers of progress that even playing in a recital doesn’t always define, unless a student were to perform their previous year’s recital piece along side the current year’s composition. (Maybe an idea worth trying!) But would their audience necessarily recognize the increasing maturity of pedaling or the ability to create longer, smoother phrasing as a clear mark of measurable improvement? If we don’t use a graded system like Guild or the Royal Conservatory of Music, how do we give students’ clear but immediate goals and markers so that our students can SEE as well as hear that their practice pays off, each week in every lesson?

In our studio we’ve practiced to raise money for good causes much like gathering sponsors for races like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (Breast Cancer). We’ve raised sponsors for every minute practiced to stop the poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks by fostering a Baby Elephant through The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. We are the first piano studio I know of to do so. We have also created sight-reading projects to raise money for our local Lion’s Club’s We Care for Eye Care campaigns. Both of these practice incentive projects have been enormously successful, particularly because the historic relationship between ivory piano keys with Elephant poaching or eye care are directly related to piano lessons.

But this year we are trying something different, relating to the resurgence of the popularity of the epic Star Wars movies. While watching the newest film in this narrative, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was struck by the immediacy of the literary construct of Good vs. Evil and how passionate young people (as well us older folks) are drawn into the want of a heroic life.

So far we are having a ton of fun and practicing among all of my students has improved enormously over the dull winter months.

We created a storyboard that goes something like this:

Forty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, The First Order bans all music. It is up to our studio to make sure that music is not forgotten so that we can preserve this knowledge and skill until the Resistance can find Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi Knights and restore order to the Universe. Add a glow in the dark star to our galaxy every time you bring new music to the Universe. Remember, you are part of the Resistance and it is crucial that you work to protect the important legacy of music until it can once again flourish in the next millennium. Help defeat The First Order and their harmful restrictions of the things that make us human and happy. If you think that this is just a made up play story…think again. Time and Time again, dictators have restricted the kinds of music that can be played or listened to. Even today, in Afghanistan, there are no music schools because of the fear of the Taliban. Your music is important, to the entire world.

Everyone has posted glow in the dark stars on a drape of black fabric stretched across the ceiling of the studio. We already have had mini-recitals where my students play for each other in the darkened studio under their canopy of stars…that they all earned…together. No one’s stars are individualized. They are all different sizes and together, these reflective stars create a galaxy bright enough to perform under. At the most recent mini recital under our stars, I asked my students if they wanted to continue earning stars to place upon our “night sky”.   The answer was a resounding yes but this consensus also came with a plea. “Could we add planets”, they asked. An urge for individual recognition was thus divulged! But with students working collectively to develop our Star Wars practice project further…they together came up with an ingenious plan. Each student has a “ladder of goals” in their practice notebooks. Six rungs. Six, yearlong goals, which students strive to complete, by the end of each piano year. Each year the goals differ slightly…but in general…they are:

  1. Be able to play all 12 major scales…or all 24 major and minor scales…to various degrees depending on their age and length of piano study.
  2. Complete the “30 Piece List” of new music developed by Wendy Stevens and Elisse Milne.
  3. Maintain a Repertoire list of 5 memorized pieces.
  4. Record at least 5 new pieces during the school year and post to their individual mp3 web pages on my studio web site.
  5. Participate in three studio recital events OR complete the 100-day practice project sponsored by Clavier Companion.
  6. Perform or Record a specially chosen challenge piece or complete an entire book of music for a book recital aka Suzuki Book home performance.

When a student completes two ladder goals…they get to choose their planet from a studio-made list of planets from our solar system, the moons in our solar system and the planets in the Star Wars galaxy. Of course, as a result of a student suggestion, we have a name and create your own planet option as well.

When a student completes 4 ladder goals, they take home a styrofoam planet shaped ball to be decorated however realistically or fantastically they want. When all six goals are completed, students will bring in their planets to be hung from our ceiling of stars, first in the studio and then at the end of year studio.

We’ve just started the planet portion of this practice project. But students are already driven to choose a planet of their choice. Pluto is popular for some reason! But Saturn is a close second! And everyone is intrigued by the idea of creating his or her own imaginary world in outer space. But this outer-space is based on working together to create a galaxy of a courageous world, where heroes reign, music is king and effort is grand.


events-gpianoEvery start of a new piano year brings excitement and fond greetings from parents and students returning to lessons after a summer vacation break.  And this year included flowers, homemade cards and even peanut butter cookies!  But for students who took most of the summer off, that first walk in the front door of the studio is often accompanied by some moderate amount of anxiety.  This used to surprise me, because I have a good working relationship with my students and I had always assumed that they would be as happy to see me as I am to see them.  Fortunately, parents have confided in me or sent me an emailed warning note that their student was worried.  They were worried that I would be disappointed in them because they didn’t get a chance to practice very much during the summer.

I  send a list of fun summer piano projects home with each student at the end of the school year.  And while some students walk in the door having completed many short, simple projects on the list; others are fearful that they didn’t do enough or even that “they didn’t have time to do anything.”  But the last thing in the world I want for my students is to start a new year of private music lessons feeling guilty!

For whatever reason, this year in particular, students were coming in apologizing for not completing their project list….or even starting their project list.  I was taken aback at first, but what could have become a week of shame for many students turned into a lesson of opportunity.  I simply started to ask students for a “show and tell.”  I had the project list…complete with built in rewards…at the ready.  Once students, with prodding, started to share with me the things they did over the summer at the piano, on their own, even with whimsy, even doodling, turned out to have been an action on our summer list. Slowly and surely, each student started marking off things on the list and every student left their first lesson having achieved so much more during the summer then they thought could be possible.  Students composed; they listened to youtube and learned things by ear; they played with music apps; they found pieces to review that they liked; they performed over the summer for friends and family; they heard live music concerts; they improvised; created ending and grand entrances for some of their pieces; they taught a song to a sibling or parent; they could demonstrate to me that they could change the key of a piece…transposing; they learned new pieces by flipping through old books.  And every single student could play their memory list upon returning to piano lessons.

If I had only opened up their piano notebooks to the prior page from June and asked for the next assignment, I would have had students wondering why were they continuing lessons with yet more expectations piled onto a week of new schoolwork.  Instead, every student left the studio this week smiling, looking forward to completing a few more projects and eager to complete the 15 project points that will reward them with participation in a “Bang on a Bucket class” at our local percussion studio in town in early October.

What a successful first week of teaching and learning and playing music, for all!