Archive | August, 2018

Traits of a Good Teacher

While attending a workshop on piano pedagogy recently presented by Dr. Susan Kindall, the students in the class were given the opportunity to describe in one word a good teacher by whom they had been positively impacted (these traits were not given exclusively as descriptions of music teachers). As each person in the class shared, it was both intriguing and inspiring to hear from students’ perspectives the positive qualities of those who guided their studies. Some of the adjectives given included the following, on each of which I have briefly expounded.

  • Caring
    Private teachers have an amazing opportunity to work one-on-one with students of all different personalities, backgrounds, and more. Take advantage of the opportunity God has given you to speak into these eternal lives.
  • Approachable
    We want our students to feel free to talk to us. When we ask a question, we ought to make sure that they know that if they don’t know the correct answer, it’s okay. They don’t have to be musically perfect, but they should be encouraged to discuss things over with us. Also, give them chances to ask questions. Many students will only ask about something if the conditions are just right, so endeavor to set up a comfortable, communicative atmosphere in the lesson.
  • Knowledgeable
    We all want to learn from our teachers, so having a teacher who has extensive knowledge about what they are teaching is invaluable. Obviously, no one can know everything, but we as teachers ought to 1.) Have a good foundation in what we are teaching and 2.) Continually seek for “gaps” in our own education and endeavor to fill them.
  • Precise
    Rather than listening to a student play something and then reassigning it for another week of practice to “finish learning” or “polish,” give them something specific to work on. If you are needing to reassign the piece, then there is obviously something not finished about it. What is it? Give specifics – “you need more dynamic contrast,” “double-check those notes,” “bring the tempo up gradually,” etc. Then explain the “how” for whatever is needed: “physically play into this section for emphasis on the fortissimo then drop the amount of weight you put into the keys to bring it back to pianissimo,” “analyze the chords and see what is going on ‘behind the scenes.’ Then you’ll have a more solid idea of the notes required,” “work with a metronome beginning at 60 on the quarter and work up 2-3 speeds at a time until you are at 120.” Precision is key!
  • Thorough
    Don’t settle for a perfect tempo with imperfect notes; be nitpicky about rhythms; don’t be afraid to reassign a piece (especially to an intermediate or advanced student) for work in one or two “little” areas or skills. If there is something amiss, do all you can to develop the student’s skill and repair the problem.
  • Exciting
    Get excited about the wonderful things your student is learning. Be enthusiastic about the progress you see each week (even if it’s miniscule!). Emphasize how much you love what you do: the instrument itself, the music you are studying, the thrill of training the next generation of musicians, geeky music theory… the list is endless! There is so much to be excited about; help the student see that!
  • Pushing
    Reach for new skills that will stretch the student’s ability. One of my favorite teachers has a saying: “Never say ‘I can’t.’ You may say ‘I can’t yet.’ Then I can help you.” In addition to always reaching beyond current limitations, insist that current skills be mastered thoroughly before moving on. Sometimes it’s better to plateau for a little while before beginning the next portion of the ascent up the mountain of music mastery.


Check out these excellent books by Jane Magrath, filled with graded standard repertoire purposefully selected for building technique for the pianist. These are amazing resources!

Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Classics (Level 1-2) Level 1-2. By perf. Kim O’Reilly. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection. Masterwork Classics. Baroque, Classical Period and 20th Century. Collection and examples CD. With easy piano notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 32 pages. Alfred Music #00-6581. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6581).
Cover tiny file look inside Masterwork Technical Skills Level 1-2. Edited by Jane Magrath. Graded Standard Repertoire; Masterworks; Piano Collection; Technique Musicianship. Technical Skills. Masterwork. Book. 24 pages. Alfred Music #00-6583. Published by Alfred Music (AP.6583).

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Beginner’s Plunk – What Can We Do?

If you’ve ever heard elementary pianists play, you probably know what I’m talking about – that unmistakable beginner’s plunk (with which I was plagued myself as a young musician).

For the first several months of my teaching experience, I thought primarily of achieving one thing in the training of my piano students, and that was to get them to read music fluently. As time has moved on, this still remains a very strong goal. However, other things have also risen to the surface of mind, making my mental list of “topmost important things beginners should be taught” grow rapidly. Added to the note-reading fluency have been rhythmic accuracy, adherence to written dynamics, a beautifully correct hand position, a kneading or massaging motion when depressing the keys, and more.

More recently, I have noticed that the results I am seeing in my upper-elementary students leave something to be desired. Granted, they are upper-elementary, and will not, even with their best efforts, play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” the way a professional concert pianist would. This isn’t about absurd goals and utter perfectionism, but about reaching the highest level of excellence possible.

Something I want to see in my beginners (and have seen in some cases) is agility in the hands when moving across the keys. Additionally, students should be taught to play musically and with personal artistic expression, but within the general boundaries of era and style. Too often there is a tendency for the beginners to produce the plunking sound with which we are all familiar, and I surmise that this can have multiple causes.

Two of the causes that I’ve identified are 1.) a lack of understanding about legato (see the previous article, Pianistic Legato for more specifics on this) and 2.) muscle stiffness, which can be much decreased by the implementation of scales into the student’s daily work (one octave is good for beginners).  Five-finger exercises have proven very effective in removing the muscular stiffness and developing finger independence, as well.

Depending on the student’s note-reading ability and general teaching philosophies, another solid resource for developing agility and overall maturity on the keyboard and relaxing the hand muscles is The Little Pianist exercises by Carl Czerny.

Cover tiny file look inside The Little Pianist Op. 823 Composed by Carl Czerny (1791-1857). Edited by Ruthardt. Studies. Sheet Music. Edition Peters #EP2845A. Published by Edition Peters (PE.EP2845A).

Finally, consider utilizing the student’s ear.* Most of us learn best by example, so if there is trouble achieving the desired sound, try demonstrating it a few times and then allowing the student to imitate you. With demonstrations, it can be helpful to play the entire passage so that the student can get a better idea of the “big picture,” but then back down to a phrase or two as you work together to reach an accurate imitation.

Every student is going to be different, and there is not a one-size-fits-all cure for developing technique. Analyze the situation – the music, the hands, the student’s overall positioning, past successes and difficulties, general strengths and weaknesses. Articulate to yourself exactly what is missing and then direct the student accordingly.

*For students who have a naturally good ear, demonstration should be used carefully, as “feeding” the points that are already strong can hinder the growth of the weaker areas, especially that of note reading. If your student a) doesn’t have a good ear, or b) is already reading music somewhat fluently, I think demonstration can be one of the most effective and wonderful techniques at a teacher’s disposal. Also, students who struggle with hearing the music need to have their ears trained so that they can reach their maximum potential.


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Pedagogy Question: Forgetful Students

Question: My student acts like [she] doesn’t remember the things I asked [her] to work on at the previous lesson. What are effective ways to approach this?

Answer: There could be multiple answers to this question. I will address three primary causes behind forgetful students (sometimes neglect in disguise) that I have encountered, with ideas for possible solutions.

  • The student is not interested in learning and/or playing the instrument.

I have sometimes found this to be the case, and it takes discernment to know for sure if this is actually what is going on. In some situations, students are only taking lessons because their parents want them to, and, sad but true, this is not enough to get them going. I have found that it is often beneficial in these types of scenarios to keep things bright and cheerful – maybe even going so far as to pretend that I think they are thrilled to be with me each week. If they don’t care about learning, they won’t care about remembering what you are trying to teach them. And if they don’t care about what you are trying to teach them, there is a good chance that they also don’t care about whether or not you are pleased with their progress. Try following this logic in reverse. Build relational bridges: talk about things they are interested in for a few minutes each lesson. Let them know that you are thrilled to be their teacher, and that you want to see them excel. Relationships take time, and you may not see results overnight, but this approach is almost always going to be the most successful in the long run.

  • The student doesn’t understand exactly what is expected of them.

It could be that you as the teacher unconsciously assume that your student is fluent in your personal music lesson language. Things such as “saying note names” and “counting” are common place, everyday terms for us as teachers, but the 8 year old who has only been playing for a short time may be a little confused about what that means when they see it in their assignment notebook. Take the time to walk them through exactly how you want them to practice one of their pieces, and then verbally apply those same techniques to the rest of their music.

Another idea is to let them participate in the note-taking process. Show them what you are writing as you write it, and keep the sentences/individual assignments nice and short. If you have a tendency to assign the same practice techniques week after week, let them take a guess as to what you are going to say next. They probably already know exactly what you are looking for! Also consider speaking the assignments before writing them, and then say them again as your pen crosses the paper. All of these techniques combined will help the auditory learner, the visual learner, and the kinesthetic learner.

  • The student doesn’t understand or respect your authority as a teacher.

This is especially something of which to be aware when you are teaching friends and/or children who may view you as an adult playmate. Draw a line in your interactions between when is a time to run around the yard playing tag versus when is the time to do what they are told. When it is necessary to play with someone who is your student, keep in mind that they are your student, and maintain a gentle firmness in your overall bearing that will help reinforce your authority when the next lesson day comes around


I hope these suggestions give food for thought and prove helpful in each of your teaching journeys. In the end, you might find that you have to teach your students not only how to understand and play music, but also how to learn and grow in their understanding. That’s okay! The great part is, even if they decide to stop music study permanently (hopefully they don’t!), you will have helped to lay a foundation in their minds for all of life.


Are you looking for additional material to reinforce what you are teaching to your students? These theory books are excellent for working alongside any method book system. We highly recommend them!

Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 1 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-1).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 2 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-2).
Cover tiny file look inside Just the Facts – Book 3 Just the Facts. A unique workbook series, useful as preparation for the Texas State theory test. Instructional book. Published by Music Bag Press (M3.JTF-3).


If you benefited from this article, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. Also, don’t forget to check out my other articles on music pedagogy here.


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Playing Skillfully

In my last article, Why Should I Learn an Instrument? I briefly referenced Psalm 33:3 where it says, “Play skillfully with a loud noise.” This verse has become an immense encouragement in my own journey of learning, teaching, and playing skillfully, and also helped me understand why we as Christian musicians should include classical studies in our preparation for ministry. (I touched briefly on this subject in the first goal of Thoroughly Equipping Music Students for Life, Part 1.)

We are counseled in Ecclesiastes 9:10 to do with all our might whatsoever our hands find to do. If “whatsoever” is a universal term then this counsel reaches into the realm of music education, as well as into other areas of life. And this is where I get almost passionately enthused with the sheer delight of music and all things teaching. Here is an admonition to do what we do, well. It’s almost as though I have just been given permission to do what I love, well, and I feel almost as excited as a ten-year-old who has just been commanded to spend chore time at the fish pond. 🙂

In a way, this subject of playing skillfully will serve as a sort of bridge spanning the gap between the behind-the-scenes pedagogical worldview and the up-front practicalities of making it happen. We’ve already established why we ought to put effort into studying. So what about the how?

Playing skillfully is challenging, no matter how you look at it. Even the most gifted musician you know would probably tell you that they had to work for the level they attained. In all truthfulness, it takes years to master an instrument. This fact leaves teachers with a task requiring painstaking attention to detail and just general attentiveness. Looking ahead to future articles, I hope to focus our discussions on various details that we ought to seek to develop in our students’ playing.

Teaching is such a delight – I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!


If you found this article to informative, stimulating, helpful, or something else, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you! Additionally, I love using G. Schiermer editions of music for both my own study as well as for my students. Check out Sheet Music Plus’s amazing selection of G. Schirmer products!

G-Schirmer Sheet Music Plus G-Schirmer


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