Tag Archives: Rewarding Piano Practice

Piano Teaching Week #13 Online! (amidst COVID-19)

This is our 13th week and the next to the last online piano lessons of the 2019-2020 school year, due to the stay at home order of the Coronavirus epidemic. We are all so grateful that we had the technology to switch to online lessons. And Everyone, students, teachers, and parents have learned so many new skills in order to create successful online lessons.  I’m sure this is part of the real fatigue we are all feeling, not just with music lessons, but with online school and work in general.  Our screen time is up to 12 hours a day.  We are starting to move around more outside but still in small groups and with physical distancing and masks on at all time.  A few students are coming into the studio this week to create their final video recordings for the year…but only one at a time, no parents or siblings, students wait in the car to be called, we each work at a piano at opposite sides of the room, no hugs, no contact, and students work in the studio only for 20 minutes.  We do not know what the new school year will bring in Fall 2020…how much we will be back in the studio?  How much do we continue online?  Will we stagger students…one day in the studio, the next day online or every other student on a plan A and plan B schedule alternating back and forth between in studio and online?  Only time will tell.  Massachusetts numbers are falling and continue to look good.  Yet the spouse of one of my adult students, is being tested for Covid-19 as I write.

One thing for certain:  we have all learned a lot and many of the teaching techniques adjusted for online learning will now become part of our piano teaching toolbox forever!  Here are my favorite new tools gleaned from online teaching:

Alphabet Letter blocks: this really helps to confirm what we are hearing while naming notes!  It can be hard to differentiate between a “C” and a “D” or an “E” when there is a fuzzy internet connection.  These also make for good naming keys of the piano games while using an overhead video recorder on the piano keys!  These are big and easy to read from screen to screen.

Japanese colored Wasabi Tape!  This tape lifts off the piano keys without leaving a mark and comes in bright colors.  This is perfect for marking whole and half steps and other intervals on the piano when using an overhead view of the piano keyboard during scale work, theory lessons or when visually correcting a note reading error on the physical piano keys.

Ear Training Games:  Online video lessons are the perfect time to increase ear training…and fair is fair…students get to turn the tables on teachers too!

Understanding Measure numbers:  When we started online lessons, understanding how to read and count measure numbers was crucial!  We take this for granted, but students by and large did not understand how to count measure numbers when they only saw blocked non-sequential numbers that jumped from 5 to 10 to 17…etc.

Marco Polo!:   I play, then the student plays and echoes exactly what I play.  This gets even more fun as I randomly choose harder and harder sections of a piece. Then we play the reverse…students choose a random section and I have to repeat them exactly!

The Racer!:  Patterned after an old roller coaster amusement park ride from Kennywood Park in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. We alternate measures of a piece; I play the first measure of a student’s piece, then the student follows without break, to play the second measure, etc.  We continue alternating measures until the piece is smooth.  Then we repeat but with the student going first.  This really helps students to look ahead and preparing ahead of playing!

Emoticons and Giffy’s!  Once students learned how to open up their chat boxes, they taught me how to search for emojis, emoticons and mini videos.  We used these endlessly with delight, creating all kinds of games and use of these for sticker awards!  We would run through their memory lists by my finding an emoji that matched a title of a piece and they had to guess what I was referring to!  Or I would use these to describe in a picture an adjustment to their dynamics or touch or expression.  Or use emoticon alphabet letters when mixing up section work in learning music!  Students would in turn send me emoticons to show they were proud of their work or sad that the lesson was ending.

Learning the Student’s Home Environment!  We had the chance to adjust bench heights, recommend piano tuning, encourage upgrading from X stand two octave keyboards to better instruments, lighting, having pencils ready, metronomes nearby or on apps, meeting the parents more often and having time to talk about how everyone was doing as a family.  And of course, meeting every animal member of the family and knowing the family pet by name!  My students’ pets from guinea pigs, to cats and dogs, salamanders, rabbits and chickens usually made an appearance at every lesson!







Teaching Piano Online Week #4 (COVID-19).

Crashing Down:  Teaching’s been good.  But after the exhilaration of getting everything set up in the studio; everyone setup online; platform names logged in; music organized by day of the week and student by student, there are THOSE days.  The internet is so clogged from usage that connect-ability is interrupted.  Looking at pixelated faces for even 5 minutes is dizzying enough but sounds get warbled too.  Often pianos sound tinny or electrified even when the student is playing on an acoustic piano.  One discovery:  if a student is using their cell phone to skype or Facetime with you and it is sitting on their piano…ask them to wrap a hand towel around the phone.  It makes all the difference in the world. 
Students are starting to appear weepy and tired. This is the week that all school districts handed out homework over the internet and started on-line classes. For many young ones,  Seeing all of their work at once was overwhelming, while parents are already stressed from trying to keep up with their jobs online.  Kaylee’s eyes were red when she sat down at her keyboard at 6:00 pm in the evening.  The crabby hour for many of us. Kaylee had been chipping away at 4th-grade homework most of the day.  Fortunately, Kaylee was only three pieces away from earning her next 30 list prize.  We went into her Disney pre-time book.  First up, The Siamese Cat song from the movie “The Lady and the Tramp.”  I have much respect for Peggy Lee, one of the first women composers to break the gender gap composing for Walt Disney Pictures. Students often chose this simple piece of harmonic thirds as their first piece to start in the book.  No sweat for Kaylee. Sight-read right through it.  I used my newly found screen sharing abilities so that we watched the original scene of the song with the devilish Siamese Twin cats together, virtually!  That made it possible for Kaylee to get a renewed sense of joy. She quickly and accurately added two more pieces to her 30-list and selected a turquoise ring from my prize box.  I will put It into my Little Free Library house that stands in front of my house, next to the sidewalk.  Normally filled with extra music for the community, this stand now services the ability for me to pass out new piano practice notebooks, incentive prizes and special music to my own students.  And they sometimes leave me special bags on occasion…pumpkin muffins or chocolate chip cookies!
Students are learning not only how to read and mark measure numbers but also to count octaves so that we can each agree that the G above high C is assuredly G 5.  We’ve never quite had to number the octaves when working together in the same room.  Progress is good…but I need to remind myself of that daily.  I have set up a private YouTube station for my students’ videos, and they are sending in polished recorded pieces all the time now.  But I know exactly what my students and parents are feeling.  After breakfast this morning, I ended up back in bed, just to read for a little bit.  I woke up 3 hours later…at 12:30 pm …just in time for lunch and a full afternoon of teaching.  Josh was afraid I must be getting sick.  But apparently, I just needed some away time from all the screens and the insidious worry that nags at us much of the time.  Yesterday, I had my iPad leaning against my laptop for a Facetime lesson with a student.  For some reason, I cannot Facetime from my computer. Only my phone or iPad.  I wanted to type out a text to a student on the iPad, but inadvertently was typing from my laptop.  Took me several minutes to figure out why my typing wasn’t appearing in the text!  I definitely needed that long morning nap.  And this experience has helped me to be extra understanding when working with students and families online.  One huge plus: I get to meet all of my student’s pets! Meet Sadie the Cat! Hugs to all this Easter and Passover week.

When Our Piano Students Inspire Others! Publication

Dear Penny,
There is no way I can tell you how beautiful your magazine article is! First, congratulations! What a testimony to all your creative, caring and hard work you always exhibit at every lesson and beyond.  One wonders how many other music teachers will be inspired to carry out some similar, worthy projects in their studios and touch others in near and faraway places. I loved the way you told about themes and some of the chosen music for those themes.I teared up myself when I saw and read how Alban Dhamo was moved to tears. I loved those two pictures you put together.
The way you ended, telling how Theo was playing “Won’t You be my Neighbor? at that particular time [of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting]. Well, I agree with the old Yiddish saying you shared. We don’t know the deep and complete mystery of how God is knitting us all together, but sometimes a beautiful hint escapes from hidden mysteries, and your work with the children and your article is a beautiful example for us to experience wonder, be in awe, and be thankful!
Today we were at the Dalton House for our yearly big family Christmas gathering. While we were all in the dining room, Harry played some of his memorized pieces ( Riding the Rapids, Dragonfly, and his new Christmas piece from the Snowman movie). I was surprised…Harry wasn’t asked to play….he just went to the piano and played away…..Harry does not look for attention…..he was just happy to be able to play the pieces. The  boy and girl cousins in their 20’s loved listening to the Christmas piece. I think it brought back memories of when they were younger. Everyone at our long table got to hear about Penny Lazarus, and about some of the work she is doing with her students….some of the work mentioned in your article! 
Thanks so much for sending the article.I am going to print it 
You are truly a gift to all of us.
See you on Tuesday.
Here is a copy of  my article published in national music journal, The Piano Magazine, Winter 2019-2020.

When our Piano Students Inspire Others: The Socially Conscious Piano Studio

Engaging in acts of kindness and collaboration is a mainstay of healthy living and a profound way to head off feelings of isolation, burnout, and depression. At the age students typically start piano lessons, they are also reaching a developmental stage in which they begin to think outside of themselves. All schools implement statewide curriculum goals that introduce young people to concepts of community, starting with a student’s town or city. Upper elementary grades work at the state level, middle schools work on understanding our country, and each successive grade builds on our global relationships. Children respond amazingly well when they are given an opportunity to work collaboratively for the greater good of their community, and it becomes important for us as teachers to remind our students that we study music because it is a collaborative, social, communicative art between ourselves and others. 

My students have found inspiration to practice through their ability to use music to do good for the world around them. Students can help others by playing for charity benefits or, in this case, asking family members to sponsor their practicing (much like Walks for a Cause or Race for the Cure). This feeling of “agency,” the ability to successfully urge others to make a change, is incredibly motivating for all of us, including our youngest students.  

One year, my students worked with our local Audubon center to foster rescued cold-stunned sea turtles. Another year we worked with a foundation in Kenya that rescues baby elephants abandoned by ivory poachers. We have opened the walls of our studio to the outside community, making connections with music studios across the world, including post-communist Albania and a new music school in the environmentally sensitive Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean. It is not difficult to implement some community projects into your studio. If you do, I think you will find that your students will practice with renewed intention. Then, perhaps, they will return again and again to the piano as they discover that music speaks, as Victor Hugo spoke, of that “which we must not be silent.”

 Starting top left and moving clockwise: 1. Fostering Baby Elephants in Nairobi, Kenya at the Tsavo National Park with the SheldrickWildlifeTrust.org. Only 415,000 African elephants remain in the wild. 2. Saving Kemp’s Ridley Seat Turtles on Cape Cod, MA. Female nesting Ridleys number under a thousand. 3. Composer Alban Dhamo on top of one of 750,000 bomb shelters built but never used across the entire country of Albania. These bunkers were built by Communist Dictator Enver Hoxha (1944–1985) depleting the Albanian economy of food, education, and other resources. 4. The giant statues are a World Heritage Site on Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Called Moai, they were created by early Rapa Nui people. Easter Island is inundated with trash that washes over from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

​Here’s How We Do It!

​We have become a project-based studio. In fact, my students helped me to come up with a byline that now explains what we do on a regular basis: The Studio of Penny Lazarus— Interacting with the World One Key at a Time! But you do not have to reorient your teaching style or teaching practices to implement a community project during your teaching year. What do I mean by a project-based studio? I choose an all-encompassing theme each summer and this theme drives a portion of our selected piano music, theory, history, and compositional assignments from September through June. This annual project can be a focused study of a single composer (Bartok), or a period of music (the Baroque era), or a more abstract theme (music about water). While good musical practices are foremost in my mind, our annual theme always includes a community fundraising project in which students find sponsors who will fund their practice time at three cents a minute over the course of a six-week time period.

Tracking Practice for Fundraising

​I provide detailed project plans, information, and dates for the fundraising period to every family well in advance of our starting week. Students keep track of their minutes spent practicing each day and in their practice notebooks. After the six weeks are over, we add up the minutes to find the total amount of dollars earned. I don’t collect money weekly, but wait until the entire fundraising period is over. On average, students will reach a contribution of $25. Some students may earn well over $30, depending upon age and time spent at the piano. Even though many families will round up an earned amount, I never require donations from families. Scholar students with a reduced lesson tuition plan are often sponsored by former piano families, who are delighted to contribute to the project.

7th grader Aidan Reynolds keeping track of his practice minutes in our studio lesson notebook. 

Fundraising Projects Must Tie into Music Studies

​My studio families have all found these to be exciting and worthy goals; parents and relatives often double or triple the amount of dollars raised through sponsorships. We typically raise $1,000 each year for a specified cause, but your studio can make an impact with much less. It is most important that these community fundraising projects align closely with a student’s personal pianistic goals and that the ensuing relationship among foundation, music school, and your studio be mutually collaborative and beneficial for all parties. More often than not, my students participate in the creation of ideas and details of our collaboration. Group projects are a hallmark of student-centered learning. It’s this “agency,” the ability for students to influence change, that creates excitement in the piano studio. Parents and students have repeatedly told me how much they enjoy our collaborations and how deeply they inform our recitals. I assume they are sincere in their compliments, since the retention rate in my studio annually reaches 90 percent.


Elephant Project

​Students will easily connect with fundraising projects that help protect wildlife. One of our favorites is The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that operates in Kenya rescuing baby elephants, whose mothers have been killed by ivory poachers, and raising them in the protected Nairobi’s Tsavo National Park, where they can live out their full lives. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust raises money by asking people to “adopt” an orphaned elephant. For as little as $50, your studio can receive monthly updates and photos of your baby elephant for a year. 

This is all well and good, but how does it relate to the piano? In a word: ivory. The illegal collection of ivory still fuels an active black market. While pianos are no longer manufactured using ivory for keys, many of our students still play on older pianos. And even though the market for ivory piano keys should no longer exist, this is a great opportunity to study, for example, the history of the piano spanning harpsichords to electric pianos, or maybe focus on a period of music such as the Baroque or Romantic period, in which changes to the piano led to changes in composition and performance. (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/orphans)

Turtle Project

​My students and I live on the ocean in seaside Essex County, which is the Northeastern-most area in Massachusetts. We are all extremely aware of the encroachment of non-native species of plants, powerboat fishing nets, environmental pollution, and climate change that threaten extinction of marine life. One such situation is the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, whose female nesting numbers are now below a thousand. With waters warming more every year, these sea turtles are swimming into Canada, farther north than normal, where they are unprepared for the increasing cold of November ocean currents. By the time they turn south for their annual migration back to the warm winter beaches in the Gulf of Mexico, they become so cold-stunned that their navigational senses deteriorate and they arrive by the hundreds near death on the frozen beaches of Wellfleet, MA (in the crook of the arm that shapes the Cape). The Audubon Society of Wellfleet is ground zero for the rescue of these smallest of all sea turtles during the months of November and December. Their staff is inundated with frozen turtles requiring veterinary care, providing banana boxes with blankets to hold the sea turtles for evaluation as well as dozens of kiddie pools filled with warm water. Donations are crucial for success. We started the piano year by studying Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks suites and extended our sound connection to music about rivers. (The Water Music suites were first performed on the banks of the Thames River in commemoration of King George I). Barcarolles, sailors’ songs by Heller, Schumann, and Grieg, spirituals such as Wade in the WaterAt the River and Deep River, Kabalevksy’s Night on the River, and music suggesting swans (think Swan Lake, “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals, and Julie Knerr’s “The Swan” from Piano Safari) extend the subject to all ages in the studio. Add in pieces from The Little Mermaid, Free Willy, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Moon River, Over the Rainbow, and Firework by Katy Perry and you can also provide ties to popular music. (massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/ wellfleet-bay/)

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Center. The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle rescue operation of November 2016. Photo credits: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Easter Island Project

As part of our outreach to the community, we annually partner with the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival led by David Yang, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Chamber Music department and Ensemble Epomeo violist. Every March, David brings an accomplished pianist to Newburyport and, on the morning of their concert, the pianist works with my students in a public “un-masterclass” setting. Our annual theme often derives from this solo concert program, proposed a year in advance. This past year, New York City pianist Michael Brown proffered a piano recital with music about the ocean, which led us to another “water” music project. This time, however, we focused on music about the ocean and island cultures, along with the problem of plastics left on our beaches, littering the ocean floor and devastating sea life; whales are turning up dead with over 80 lbs. of refuse in their bellies and sea turtles are found swimming with plastic straws stuck in their noses. This trash that we all create is threatening the existence of small islands whose people cannot possibly handle the tons of rubbish that never completely decomposes and drifts forever on ocean currents pulling toward their shores.

Piano student Alexandra Paciulan meeting with Julie Towne, head of development of Wellfleet Audubon, at our end-of-year piano recital where the exchange of donations took place.

There is a treasure trove of music about the ocean because of the nineteenth-century’s preoccupation with high seas, leisure boat travel, and devastating storms resulting in shipwrecks. One might imagine Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Mendelsohn’s “On the Sea Shore,” Burgmüller’s “The Storm,” and Heller’s “Through Wind and Rain” and “Avalanche,” to name just a few. We expanded our European-based repertoire to include folk music from countries impacted by the sea, including Inuit melodies, Icelandic children’s songs, and Sakura from Japan. We also added music by contemporary composers: William Gillock’s “Summer Storm” and Anne Crosby Gaudet’s “Angel Fish”; “Starfish in the Night” and “Evening Sail” by Melody Bober; “Mist” by Carolyn Miller; “The Shark” by Catherine Rollins; John Williams’ theme song from the movie Jaws; “Make Your Own Storm” by Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from the movie Moana; and music from Titanic and Pacific, by Ryan O’Neil. Here is a wide range of music for every level and every music taste in the studio! For our joint fundraising project, we worked with the new Rapa Nui School of Music and the Arts on Easter Island, Chile, that aims to support 100 children and adults with free music lessons. The school itself, built in the shape of a flower, is made entirely out of recycled materials: ten tons of recycled plastic pellets, 30,000 aluminum cans, and 20,000 glass bottles. We raised more than one thousand dollars to help this school’s goals that include classical music and ancestral Rapanui music lessons. The teachers at the school sent us handwritten unpublished piano scores of original folk music that we then incorporated into our end-of-year recital. My students continue to write pen pal letters both in English and Spanish to their new friends in Chili. (https://tokirapanui.org › school-of-music)   

Albania Project

​In 2017 we undertook our first transatlantic project. While researching the Hungarian, Rumanian, and Magyar folk melodies that Bartok used in his piano music, I was introduced to Alban Dhamo and his wife Erinda Agolli, who live in Tirana, Albania! Alban is a contemporary composer and Erinda is a singer, as well as a voice and piano teacher. We worked out a mutual project: Alban wrote twelve pieces for my studio based on Albanian folk melodies, just as Bartok used ethnic melodies of his homeland in his works for children. Then we found out that the music school at the Lincoln Center for Language and the Arts in Tirana, where both Alban and Erinda work, did not have access to any of the pedagogy materials that we take for granted in our studios. Until 1985, Albania was a communist country where the dictator Enver Hoxa disavowed the study of all arts and music unless it was in service to the regime. Thirty-five years later, the country is successfully developing a free market system, but, alas, no one has opened up a music bookstore in the country. Salaries are still quite low in Albania, with an average middle-class worker earning only $60 per month. Credit cards are scarce, ordinary citizens do not have access to many websites, and import fees and a still dysfunctional post office system make sending packages a risky and expensive proposition. Our fundraising efforts went to purchasing multiple levels of our most frequently used piano series and paid for extra luggage fees. In the end, 500 piano books were personally delivered to the music school.

Teacher Penny Lazarus with piano students Harry Meurer looking over the many donated books to send to the Lincoln Center of the Arts, Tirana, Albania. Photo credit Jim Vaiknoros/The Daily News of Newburyport. These donated books and new music were hand delivered, using five suitcases, by David Turner, who lives in my hometown of Newburyport but volunteered with the Peace Corp in Tirana, Albania. David and his musician wife Bettina were instrumental in setting up this studio partnership. Half of the money we raised went to help pay the extra luggage fees at the airport, when David brought the suitcases with him as he traveled from Boston to Tirana in September 2018.

This has been an amazing collaboration. We studied interesting and unusual rhythms all year long, as this is what characterizes Bartok’s (and Eastern European and Balkan folk) music. My students loved the syncopated rhythms. Alban and Erinda do have access to Skype and we have been sharing music in recital format ever since: our students take turns playing back and forth through computers in our studios.

Composer and Music Theory teacher Alban Dhamo reacting with tears while listening to student Sam LeMoine play Alban’s “Albanian March.” 

Student Sam LeMoine listening to composer Alban Dhamo’s appreciation of Sam’s performance of “Albanian March.”

Skyping with Erinda Agolli’s students at the Lincoln Center for the Arts just before Halloween, October 27, 2018.

The search for community or music projects need not span the globe. Sometimes the most in need are music programs for the underprivileged or worthy foundations right in our own backyard.

I’ll leave you with a telling story. On the Saturday morning before Halloween, 2018, we shared a Skype recital with our Albanian counterparts. We proceeded to share music with all the students dressed up in costumes, as Albanian children also participate in that custom. It was 9:00 a.m. our time, 3:00 p.m. in Albania. One of my students decided to play the theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” from the television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. This couldn’t have been more appropriate. Once my students left, I turned on the television to witness, in real time, a racist madman killing eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. (This was deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.) I am from Pittsburgh. I know that synagogue well. It is in the same block as the house and studio of my beloved piano teacher Natalie Phillips, who gave my own fingers their musical life. Some of those killed were parents of friends of mine. One was my mother’s mahjong partner. Fred Rogers had lived nearby with his piano-concertizing wife. His show that taught love for your neighbor no matter their color or religion was produced one neighborhood away. I checked the photos of our Skype recital. The shooting started just as my student, Theo Roberts, was playing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” to children half a world away, with love, affection, and respect in all of our hearts. There is a Yiddish expression called Bersherit meaning “it was meant to be.” In our studio, this poignant coincidence strengthens our resolve to inspire others with music and kindness.

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Pin Art Adds a Whole New Dimension to Music Lessons!

Pin Art is a fun way to warm up for piano lessons!

The advantage of studying music with a private teacher is that lessons can be tailored to each student as an individual. There are many variables, such as personality, learning style, age, gender, attention span, short and long term memory, reading ability, executive function skills, and strengths and weaknesses peculiar to learning the language of music.   But often overlooked in assessments of student learning is leadership style. Some students thrive only if they can self-direct the order of their lesson. So if such a student comes in with a piece of music they discovered, but you already had a plan for that lesson, you would be better off shelving the plan momentarily and take up what the student has brought with curiosity and pride in their independence. There will be time, with the student’s help, to make a connection between this “new discovery” and the lesson at hand. Just as often, there will be students who are so eager to follow a known curriculum that they will likely want to keep working in a series of graded lesson books, because they are given concrete information about their progress. For this student, progress can be perceived safely, incremental and predictable.


Then there will be students whose behavior or thought processes turn to the immediate thing in front of them, only to have their attention wander to something totally different. In this case, we teachers may inadvertently feel like a police monitor, saying things like: “no don’t do that”, “lets do this”, “no we can’t do that at this moment”, “please put that down”, “we are working with this,” etc. Before you know it, all thoughts of a lesson plan have fallen apart and both student and teacher are lost in a world of distractions. It would be easy to label this student as non-compliant or suggest to the parent that the student is not ready for lessons.


If there is one thing that I’ve learned from teaching music to very young children, it is that you can always help a student gain control over their learning by changing the teaching environment. For example, I have a mirror hung on the wall next to the piano so that we can always check our posture. But recently, one young, first grade student of mine, took every moment he could to make funny faces in the mirror. So, for a few weeks, I took the mirror down and put it away before his lessons.


Students who have trouble with directing their focus for any length of time are often frustrated in the academic school environment as early as first grade. These students also have short fuses, when it comes to learning by experiencing mistakes, a style of learning that is taken for granted in most schools. But I’ve noticed that these distractible but super-creative kids learn best through positive experience. The more they perceive themselves as performing well on a task, the more they will be willing to try the next step.


For example, Liam, a first grader just starting piano lessons, already had a few “breakdowns” because he became afraid that he could not do something without making a mistake. I always try to watch Liam for a few moments while he is in the hallway waiting for his piano lesson. One time, he found a favorite studio toy in my waiting room basket … a large needle art frame that produces 3D Pin Art. It makes temporary impressions of whatever you stick into the rack of plastic colored pins. My students most often stick their hands and fingers into the soft pins to take an impression of their hands. Liam was doing just that when I went to invite him into the piano room for a lesson. Liam’s dad immediately asked him to put the Pin Art toy down. But I’d already made it a habit to take whatever Liam was bringing to me to be the start of his lesson. The lessons that began with my preconceived notions, based on curriculum planning, more often than not ended up with Liam becoming frustrated.


I invited Liam to bring the Pin Art Impression pad into the studio. Sitting at the bench, I tried to use it so that we could review finger numbers. I couldn’t get the impression needles to work the way I was envisioning it, but Liam knew how! So our lesson began with my learning something from Liam. We continued to work a game out together in which we placed one hand in the impression box and then had to pull one finger away so that it was missing from the picture. Liam had to say which hand and which finger were missing, but what he didn’t know was that he was also exercising finger independence. We took turns. It was as good an    exercise as playing scales and when we went to play Penta scales, Liam was ready, warmed up and showed excellent dexterity.

Since we were now focusing on finger numbers, I directed Liam back to a review songs in his lesson book, Piano Safari by Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr. Rather than start a new piece, we reviewed all of his prior pieces, because they were dependent on recognition of hand and finger position. I had not yet used the song cards that are available with Piano Safari, so I got them out and we created a long “Jacobs Ladder” string of music successes.


When it was time to wrap up the lesson, we determined which fingers Liam would need to use in his next piece, took a photo of the impressions his hand made in the Pin Art toy, and sent this as a text to home. All was fun and successful, and now I have another tool in my toolbox for teaching finger numbers and correct hand positions.




Thank you Liam, for showing me some new tricks.


Penny Lazarus, NCTM

January 16, 2018

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.