Archive | June, 2018

Thoroughly Equipping Music Students for Life – Part 1

We often hear parents make statements about preparing their children for “real life.” As teachers, we need to be equipping music students for life, preparing them to take on the challenges they will face as an adult musician. Specifically, our students need to be trained to act in branches of music in which their instruments are most commonly used.

Most Christian musicians are going to be involved in church music at some point in their lives. Every church needs a pianist. Most churches desire some, if not all of the following: special music, offertories, preludes, special seasonal programs involving music, and more.

Over my years as a teacher I have developed and am still developing goals for my students relevant to the instrument they are studying. Of course, it is vital to their success as a student and mine as a teacher that their personal goals for learning the instrument are considered. Some want to reach the highest level of mastery possible, while others are learning for pleasure’s sake. Most are eager to develop the skills necessary to become church musicians, and others study music as an extra-curricular supplement. Whatever their goals, I endeavor to help them reach them. The road is two-way, however, and because I am hired as an educator to share what I myself have learned, I make a point to share my goals with the students and their authorities. Sometimes this is done with a long overview discussion, but always it is at least a small element to our lessons.

So what are good goals for teachers to have for their aspiring musicians? I’m going to break this discussion up into articles based on the instruments I teach, because each one is unique, so keep an eye out for future entries. Let me take a moment here to state that my ultimate goal is to raise students who will play skillfully and heartily as unto the Lord, for we serve the Lord Christ. (Psalm 33:3, Colossians 3:23-24)


There are myriad aspects of a pianist’s life. It can be a bit overwhelming to set out to master all elements of being a well-rounded pianist, but with time, perseverance, and the blessing of the Lord, it can be done. I will not go into extensive detail here on the nitty-gritties of theory, composition, and other intensive fields that could be mentioned, but will focus briefly on some of the broad, primary skills necessary for mastery of the instrument.


Piano Performance typically refers to the ability to play, and to play well, the works of the Masters: Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy, to name a few. Included in this study are also scores of technical studies that can be used to prepare for and enhance the learning of the major works. While this type of music is not what we would play in church, and consequently not what a lot of people find as their focus in learning, the knowledge and skill gained from studying “classical” literature is invaluable to being a well-rounded and ready-for-anything pianist. Goal: To be able to play well – technically and artistically – the foundational works found in advanced piano literature.


There is no single instrument as commonly used for accompaniment in all realms of music as the piano. Consequently, it is essential to the well-trained pianist to be a confident accompanist in several different realms of music. Accompaniment is a sort of middle ground for a pianist between Performance and Church Music. The foundations for it are laid in Performance, and some of the most common needs for accompaniment for the Christian musician lie in the area of Church Music. Another area of accompaniment beside Church Music is playing for other performing soloists and ensembles in the “classical” field – another reason to lay a firm foundation in Performance. The primary duty of an accompanist is simple: follow your leader, be it a soloist, ensemble, conductor, or otherwise, and play your music as a supporter, not a soloist. Goal: To be able to play various styles of accompaniment, including but not limited to the following – “classical” (soloist and ensemble), sacred accompaniment (soloist and ensemble), choral music, and congregational.

Church Music

This field of pianistic occupation is probably the primary one for most people reading this article. It includes several different aspects, and is where the hours of hard practice begin to pay off for the ministry-minded musician. The largest percentage of a church pianist’s time is going to be put into accompaniment, either for the congregation, the choir, or other soloists and ensembles, and using music that is written for soloists, choirs, or maybe just out of the hymnbook. Because of this, the next element that is crucial to the church pianist is improvising from the hymnbook. This skill will be used more than most of us could ever measure, as the quantity of hymn playing that a church pianist does is immense. The hymnbook is used for congregational accompaniments, preludes, postludes, sometimes for solo and ensemble accompaniment, and sometimes for the choir. It is important that students develop this skill fluently. Depending on the church that is being served, there are commonly many opportunities to use beautifully written hymn arrangements as a soloist, which is yet another kick-back to the study of Performance music. Goal: To be able to play fluently in the four primary fields of Church Music – improvised accompaniment, written accompaniment, solo improvisation, and sacred solo.


The ability to pass on what they have learned to others is the crowning feature of the trained pianist. To be able to learn is one thing, but to teach it is another. This is what the future depends on in all areas of life. Just as parents are commanded to pass on their faith in God to the next generation (Psalm 78:5-7, Ephesians 6:4), so musicians should be prepared to endow others with their skills and knowledge for the glory of our Lord. Goal: To be able to be ever-learning, teaching themselves so that teacher-induced limitations may be overcome, and to have the potential to instruct future generations.


If you found this article to be helpful, please consider leaving a review in the comment section below. Also, check out my previous articles here.


Written with church musicians in mind, Heartfelt Hymns for All Seasons is a collection of beautiful and artistic arrangements to enhance in your weekly gathered church worship.

Cover tiny file look inside Heartfelt Hymns for All Seasons Composed by Shelly Hamilton. Sacred. SoundForth #70/1994SF. Published by SoundForth (S2.70-1994SF).


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Pianistic Legato

What is legato for a pianist? We all know that legato passages are marked with slurs. And hopefully we all know that legato actually means “smooth;” not quiet, as is a somewhat common mistake among students.

I remember as a young violinist that slurs made perfect sense: simply combine all of the notes under the slur in a single bow. Of course, as I matured musically, the world of slurs and legato playing broadened and I learned that there is much more to a beautiful legato than just combining notes in a bow. However, my point is this: beginning string players have a very simple, but correct way to mechanically play legato. At the same time that I easily comprehended the straightforward explanation of slurs in my violin studies, I was downright confused about them in piano. I did understand that slurs were different from dots (staccato; short), but that was about it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fourth year of advanced piano studies that the mechanical means of producing a beautiful legato across the ivories began to dawn in my mind. My teacher assigned me a series of exercises to further the development of finger independence (see below). I was to practice this first staccato, and then legato. Suddenly one day during practice, something clicked. The physical, muscular action required from my hand on the keys made sense. Now, this may seem elementary to any pianist who reads this, but it was a massive hurdle overcome for me. The secret is (and I’m talking about very fine, note-to-note detail work here): pianistic legato is achieved when the first key is released at the same time that the subsequent key is depressed.

Now, how to play advanced literature and church music with a lovely legato touch is beyond the scope of this study, but I want to discuss the importance of teaching this to our young beginners and elementary students, as well as few things to help give a jumpstart for application.

Most piano methods introduce slurs early on in the study, which is wonderful. I as a teacher have come to realize that, with some of my first students, I failed to begin teaching legato playing from the time it was introduced in the method, at least in part because I was teaching these students at the same time I was endeavoring to understand the concept myself.  Thankfully, my mistake was brought to light in time to fill the gaps I had unintentionally created.

Learning to play legato is crucial if a student is going to advance to playing even mid-level literature, and playing it well. It is common for elementary students to approach the keys with a course, pounding effect – understandable when they are just learning the basics of note-reading and other foundational items, but utterly inexcusable for a true pianist-in-training. Teaching and enforcing legato technique can help soften the touch of immature musicians on the keyboard, helping to develop a feel for “kneading” or “massaging” the keys.

It is also helpful in forming the hands to the correct position – rounded hands, curved, not collapsed, knuckles, and straight wrists – as it is nearly impossible to play legato with improper positioning.

Another benefit of early legato training is that it helps to relax the muscles in the hands. The sidekick that almost always shows up with beginner key pounding is extreme tension. Again, this is understandable, but ultimately not acceptable. Overmuch tension in the hands, arms, shoulders, or anywhere else in the body can lead to serious and painful muscle problems, also known as musicians’ injuries.* So, teaching our little tykes to play legato lays the foundation once again, this time for practicing and performing high-stress pieces in the future, during which it will be crucial that they stay relaxed.

But how are we supposed to teach this? The most effective “method” I have found is simple, careful explanation and demonstration. You don’t want to bore your 6 year-old (who is probably having a hard time sitting still on the bench anyway) with a drawn-out sermon on how to play legato and why they must practice it. Keep it short each lesson. This is a skill that they will use the rest of their lives, and it may take several lessons to master it and that’s quite all right. Here’s a basic outline of how I approach teaching this skill. Most students aren’t going to get it right the first time, and you may need to repeat segments or the entirety of the below list several lessons in a row Be creative and change it up to fit your teaching needs and style. Teaching ideas are not meant to be “cookie cutter” from person to person.

  1. Tell them what legato means in English. Sometimes it’s fun to ask if they already know, but be sure that they know that you are not necessarily looking for the right answer. It’s okay to guess!
  2. Contrast verbally the difference between staccato (short) and legato (smoooooooth). The more drama here, the more memorable the difference in terms will be.
  3. Demonstrate the difference (a slow scale works well as a demo piece), pointing out what your hand is actually doing – playing each note individually, or connecting the notes in a long string where each two consecutive keys are lifted and depressed simultaneously.
  4. Let them try! Scales always work well for this sort of experiment, but if you haven’t introduced them yet, a short, one-hand piece previously mastered should work, too. Encourage liberally, pointing out any and every little element of success.


Exercise for Finger Independence

This exercise can be played on any major penta-scale and is increasingly effective for finger independence with many accidentals. Here it is in C Major for the right hand only.


1   2   3  4   5      1  2   3  4   5       1  2   3  4   5        1  2   3  4   5        1  2   3   4  5
C  D  E  F  G     C  D  E  F  G      C  D  E  F  G       C  D  E  F  G       C  D  E  F  G

  1. Keep the thumb (Middle C) depressed while playing the successive fingers staccato ascending and then descending.
  2. Move on to the next group of 5 and repeat the process, keeping the second finger sustaining its note while the other four fingers play in order ascending and descending.
  3. Continue until each of the five fingers has been held out, and be sure that your hand position remains correct. If you are new to finger independence techniques, you may need to stop frequently to relax. By all means, please do!
  4. Repeat with the left hand, only this time your fifth finger will be on C (one octave below Middle C) and the exercise will appear to be backward.

Repeat the exercise with each hand, playing legato. This is usually more challenging, so take a deep breath, relax, shake out your hands, and try it again!

There are many variations for this exercise, and I’ve listed some below. Master the original, and then pick and choose, combine and create to find what best fits your needs.

  • Metronome – play quarter notes at 60 BPM; gradually speed up if desired
  • Hands together – parallel motion, legato and staccato
  • Hands together – contrary motion, legato and staccato
  • Reversal: play exactly as written above (right hand), but working right to left, descending and then ascending. The same can be done for left hand, following the same backwards finger order from step 4.



*There are many types of musicians’ injuries and a number of causes to match, often depending on the instrument being studied. Do your research and play wisely. This post is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or cure any issue. Please seek professional musical and medical advice as needed.  


If this article was beneficial for you, please consider leaving a review in the comment section below. Also, click here to read the article about teaching eras of music.


Looking for a good piano method? Consider Keys for the Kingdom, a Christ-centered and musically sound curriculum for laying a firm foundation in the lives of young piano students.

Cover tiny file look inside Keys for the Kingdom Level A Method Book. Shawnee Press. Christian Instruction. Softcover. 64 pages. Shawnee Press #H5001. Published by Shawnee Press (HL.35012003).


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Music Pedagogy Question: How do I teach about eras in music?

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow private teacher some time ago and, in the course of our discussion, she asked how I had learned about the various eras of music, and then how I approach teaching them to my students. The question caught me a little off guard because the knowledge that I have in this area isn’t something that I have labored long and hard for, the way I practice a four movement Beethoven Sonata. Additionally, I would be the first to admit that, not having worked intensively on this subject, I am not equipped to teach it on the same level I am to teach difficult pianistic techniques or literature. In a sense, because of the many wonderful teachers with whom my siblings and I have studied, it seemed that this sort of information was “just there.”

“Uh, um, I don’t know…” was my initial reaction. But then I realized that I did know how this knowledge was acquired: our teachers talk about it. Sometimes a large percentage of a lesson will be spent in discussion about a particular composer and the times surrounding his life. Maybe we talk about his family, his favorite instrument, his most commonly known works and more interestingly, the forgotten ones. They talk about the particular musical elements of an era: what types of ideas were popular at that time? How were their instruments different from ours, and how did that influence the music that was written? What are the technical (physical) elements required to recreate that musicality?

It was a lightbulb moment for me as I realized that anything I knew on the subject was due to intentional conversation on the part of my several teachers. They each in their own way have made a habit of discussing eras and composers with us throughout our lessons, especially when we begin to study a new piece. And then, they acknowledge our responsibility as the student. One teacher in particular strongly encourages us to look things up for ourselves when we have a question. After all, you are your own best teacher (more on that at a later date).

After several years of struggling to develop the disciplines of observing and intentionally looking for information beyond the notes on the page, it has finally become habitual for me before commencing the study of a new piece to observe the composer and the dates of his life. From there, I should know, or have enough information to research, what era I am dealing with and what the stylistic elements are of that era.

 “All of this is good and well when I’m the student, but what about when I’m the one responsible for training the minds and hands of the next generation of musicians?”  That’s a great question, and one it has taken me years to articulate so I could discern what was missing in my teaching and then work to find solutions.

Here’s a quick-start checklist of things to know as you introduce eras to your students:

  1. Memorize the dates of the four primary eras: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.
  2. Familiarize yourself with 2-3 commonly-known composers from each era.
  3. Learn 3-4 descriptive adjectives to describe the style of each era.

Make a point to just talk through these things in the lesson as you study a piece. You don’t have to talk about all three points at one time if you aren’t comfortable jumping into it all at once. If it’s a moderately challenging piece, the student will probably be studying it for a few lesson periods and you can research and/or brush up what you need to have ready for the next lesson during the week. Be natural, and don’t try to say what you don’t know. Those things can keep until the next lesson when you’ve collected your thoughts. At the same time, don’t be afraid to pause and look something up in your music dictionary during the lesson. It’s okay for your student to know that we are all learning and growing together, and seeing you use your resources could be just the example and encouragement they need to become excellent musicians and teachers themselves.