Tag Archives: Piano

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).


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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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Why Should I Learn an Instrument?

Why should I learn an instrument? It’s a good question: perfectly legitimate. It begs an answer. Perhaps it’s a question that your students will never ask you. They may not, after all, be able to summon the courage to face their teacher and actually put their thoughts into words. But regardless, it’s a question that is probably surfacing in their minds multiple times a week, maybe even subconsciously.

Some students genuinely enjoy their instrument, but in keeping with the human need for purpose bigger than themselves, will find themselves asking. I know, because that’s my own personal experience. Why should I learn an instrument? Actually, it was more along the lines of, “Why do I put six or eight hours into practicing every week… it’s fun and pleasant, and I want to excel… but what makes this this important?”

Other students may be learning an instrument because it’s a goal their parents have for them, but really have no interest in it themselves. Still more are interested in it for a passing season but the pleasure evaporates after a few months when it’s time to sign up for participation on the local sports team. And so the question surfaces again, Why should I learn an instrument? Or, why should anyone learn an instrument?

I’m going to make the assumption that if you are a teacher reading this article then you have already searched out the answers to this question for yourself. My point in writing this is to help all of us remember what may be going on in our students’ lives and minds and thus be more prepared to help them wade through some of these muddy areas.

It is not imperative that every person in the world learn how to play an instrument or two or three, or that everyone who does play an instrument becomes the next J. S. Bach or Leopold Auer. What is imperative is that everyone love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. (Matthew 22:37-39) This means that if you play an instrument, you must do it first and foremost for the glory of the Lord, rather than for selfish fulfillment or vain glory. Also, that if you are learning at the expressed desire of your parents and/or authorities that you do all to the glory of God and submit to that authority. I believe this is the ultimate foundation for why anyone should put time into practicing and the pursuit of musical excellence (or excellence in any other area).

Now for general purposes, we will assume that your student and/or his parents have already made the decision to begin lessons, which is why you are working through these questions to begin with. How do we as teachers help our students find answers?

Because most students are not going to come right out and ask questions like this during lessons, it is wise to assume that the questions will come at some point “behind the scenes,” and then be working in advance to establish a biblical foundation in your students’ minds. Make a point during lessons to casually bring up the topic of why we do this. Take the time to explain what a privilege it is to be able to serve the Lord and others through music, and how we as musicians can be used both in and out of the church to point weary ones to the cross of Christ. I sometimes hesitate to talk a lot on any topic during lessons because of a preconceived notion that I am being paid to critique the students playing and technique, which I am. However, a teacher who ignores the foundation is not only undermining everything they are trying to pass on but is also setting the student up for quitting because if something doesn’t seem to be worth doing, then they will probably stop putting the effort into it. Once isn’t going to be enough to really solidify the reasoning behind this, so on a practical level, bring it into conversation frequently over a period of time. Not every lesson lends itself to long (or even short) discussions on such topics, but you as the teacher have the reins, so to speak, so I encourage you to keep this mindset present throughout your work.

I love to think of the verse “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds” (Proverbs 27:23). Although we are not talking about literal animals, anyone charged with the responsibility of leading anyone or anything else (as shepherds lead their sheep) would do well to heed this nugget of wisdom given to us by the wisest man who ever lived. Given this, we as teachers ought to strive to know where our students are in their journey of the “whys” behind music, and then to direct our lessons and conversations accordingly.

Now back to our original question, Why should I learn an instrument? There are myriad reasons and more than I can thoroughly enumerate here, but I will share two that come most prominently to mind:

  • So that you can more effectively be prepared to fulfill the command to “Sing unto the Him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise” (Psalm 33:3).
  • So you can minister to other believers (Colossians 3:16).

May you be blessed with wisdom, knowledge, and discernment to be able to lead your “flocks” in the righteous paths of our Lord and endeavor to redeem each moment with your students for the Kingdom!


P.S. Keep an eye out for the next article, titled “Playing Skillfully.”


Take a look at this beautiful collection of sacred piano solos by Dan Forrest for the intermediate pianist. These hymns are artistically arranged and reinforce common pianistic techniques.

Cover tiny file look inside Fairest Lord Jesus Intermediate piano solos. Composed by Dan Forrest. Sacred. SoundForth #215798. Published by SoundForth (S2.215798).

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Teaching Music to Little Ones

One of the greatest joys is teaching music to little ones – the size person that sits on the piano bench and can barely reach the pedals, or whose violin measures an approximate 10.25 inches. I always find that these times gratify my love for adventure, and it is so rewarding to see the progress that such small children can make in a week’s time. There is so much potential in the minds of children. It’s a true joy to answer the phone and hear from the other end, “I would like to have my son/daughter start lessons.” “How old are they?” is usually one of the first questions I ask, and in reply I love to hear “almost 6,” or “just turned 4.” Often parents are unsure of whether or not their child is ready for music lessons at such an early age, and though sometimes it is probably true that some children would do better to wait a few more years, I love to start them young. The opportunities are so much greater when the mind and hands begin to be trained early in life.

But let’s get a little more practical for a while. Teaching anyone can be challenging, as delightful as it is. (Is there anything worth doing in life that isn’t preset with its own challenges?) Starting early isn’t going to eliminate all challenges, but it does exchange many of the actual intellectually-growing challenges for what I think of as practical challenges.

Practical challenges are things that you need to work through to help you reach the goal. The solutions to them are almost never ends in themselves, but that doesn’t reduce the need for solutions.

Some of the most prominent practical challenges I have faced while teaching music to little ones include:

  • Short attention spans
  • Abounding energy
  • Dramatic exhaustion

Though the list could probably go on, you have no-doubt observed that the three things mentioned above could all be connected in some way to the first one – short attention spans. There are also things to consider such as distractions from student siblings, the great outdoors visible from the windows, attractive books on the shelves in the home studio, and more.

It’s always fun to be creative and work through these challenges to keep the student engaged in what we’re trying to accomplish. Thirty minutes can be a long time for one of these little ones to sit or stand still. If you are teaching violin or another arm-held instrument, it can be even more difficult because little arms get tired quickly. Sometimes little things make a big difference in how smoothly the lesson goes, and here are some of my favorite go-to techniques for making the time pass in a productive and fun way.

  • Let them choose the color pen that you use to take notes. It gets them excited about starting the lesson.
  • 15-20 minutes through the lesson, play a game with the child by sending them running across the room, touching something that you specify, and then have them come running back to you. This burns energy, and as long as you are directing where they go, solidifies your authoritative position as teacher.
  • For students who are just “so tired,” let them set their instrument down (or take a break from sitting at the piano) while you take notes. Just a little break like this can go a long way.
  • While you are writing, ask them about their week. Let them talk about their favorite activity or what fun antics their pet has displayed.
  • Tell stories about your music learning journey, or about other things – what funny things have your pets done this week?

With any of these things, keep in mind that you are together for the purpose of learning, and after a minute or two of talking and playing, bring them back to focus gently and firmly. “Go ahead and play page __ now.” These little breaks can be repeated as often as needed, and you will {probably} gradually find that the student is maturing and diversions are not as necessary as they used to be.

Lastly, never forget: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” –Mark 10:14


Check out these hymnbooks for beginning pianists by Dr. Peter Davis. We love these books and how they fit in so beautifully with the Keys for the Kingdom method series. If you are searching for supplemental hymns for your students, look no further!

Cover tiny file look inside Keyboard Treasury, Vol. 1 A Graded Hymn Anthology Primary Piano Solos. Composed by Peter Davis. Sacred. SoundForth #110213. Published by SoundForth (S2.110213).
Cover tiny file look inside Keyboard Treasury, Vol. 2 A Graded Hymn Anthology elementary piano solos. Composed by Peter Davis. Sacred. SoundForth #110221. Published by SoundForth (S2.110221).

If you benefited from this post, please consider leaving feedback in the comment section below. Also, read other posts on music pedagogy here.


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Ten Skills Every Church Pianist Should Have

Nearly every pianist will, at some point, fill the role of a church pianist. Even if it is not a long-term arrangement, every pianist should be prepared to serve in this capacity by developing certain skills. Here are the top ten skills that my church music professional sister and I have found extremely beneficial to have in ministry.

The skill of:

1.       Improvising from the hymnbook for supportive congregational accompaniments

2.       Improvising from the hymnbook for supportive and artistic accompaniments for soloists and ensembles

3.       Improvising from the hymnbook for solo work

4.       Adapting improvisational styles to the emotions of the moment when playing solo, and even when not alone

5.       Sight-reading choral music

6.       Sight-reading from the hymnbook (and improvising while doing so)

7.       Playing “Happy Birthday” from memory, or preferably by ear

8.       Following a conductor through rehearsals and planned performances

9.       Following a music director in congregational playing

10.   Being able to play by ear in at least a general sense (hearing the basic I, IV, V chord progression necessary to playing basic songs by ear)


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


Here is one of our favorite books of piano solos for church pianists-in-training. These arrangements are wonderful for supplementing classical studies while building a solid repertoire for ministry.

Cover tiny file look inside Bless the Lord Early-intermediate Piano Solos. Composed by Gina Sprunger. Sacred. SoundForth #256305. Published by SoundForth (S2.256305).


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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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The Purpose of the Bach Inventions, and the Man Behind Them


The Bach Inventions are a collection of exercise pieces, with a style original to the composer Bonporti. These pieces were based to a large extent on the art of improvisation. As time passed, this sort of exercise music, composed in two parts, became a signature work of Johann Sebastian Bach for the purpose of teaching his son, Wilhelm, how to “compose good inventions and develop them well and to acquire a taste for the many elements of composition.” It is said that the first versions of the fifteen inventions were composed during Wilhelm’s lessons, based on the above phrase from the forward in the Autograph of 1723.

It is interesting to note that, in the order that Bach presented them to his son, the first three of the two-part Inventions – C major, D minor, and E minor – are based largely on portions of scales, sometimes on a scale in entirety. The three following, being F major, G major, and A minor, were composed using patterns derived from broken chords. B minor uses a combination of both ideas. The final eight Inventions were placed in descending order of keys, revealing another interesting fact about Bach as a very orderly instructor.

The two-part Inventions are now used primarily to teach students two things, the first being to play cleanly while only using two parts, and the second, after having mastered the first, to be able to successfully accomplish the learning of three-part contrapuntal pieces, such as Sinfonias. A large advantage given after having learned the Inventions and Sinfonias, is that, with regard to strength and technique, both hands are built up to an equal point.

Life of Bach:

J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach on March 21, 1685, to Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. His father was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professionals in the world of music. Young Bach was immersed in music from a young age, with his father as his instructor in violin and the basic theory of music. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, first introduced his nephew to organ, one of the greatest factors in J.S.’s great success as a church musician.

After his parents’ death only eight months apart, J.S. moved in with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (not to be confused with the uncle, Johann Christoph.) While living with J.C., he capitalized on his opportunities by copying, performing, and studying music, later going on to further music studies at the prestigious St. Michael’s School.

At the age of eighteen, Bach began a career as church organist, which he continued in until 1723. The life of a musician carried him to work in several different churches during this time. Following his church organist career, Bach worked as the Cantor in the St. Thomas Church. This position involved instructing students in Thomasschule in singing, providing the main churches in the area with music, and teaching Latin (for which he was allowed to hire a deputy). He served in this capacity for the next twenty-three years, until his death in 1750.


This essay was written at the request of my wonderful piano instructor, Allison Chetta (Pinner Studios, Greenville, SC).


Click below to purchase all of the two-part inventions for Sheet Music Plus today!