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A Piano Student Practices his own Musical Creation (Video)

Fritz rose to the occasion following a 90-minute lesson last week that was packed with theory-related “stuff,” channeled nicely into composing.

That he learned about “MAJOR SECONDS” through individual, creative self-expression, helped soften the impact of a lengthy piano exposure.

As promised, I videotaped the student’s recent lesson to show his follow-through practicing, and how his piece evolved and developed. (He had refined phrases along the way)


Composing opportunities foster learning and deepen an understanding of music theory without the dread associated with it. Interval study, for example, can be nicely wrapped into this activity.

Finally, the video below affirms the value of taking creative journeys with students that will grow their intellect and imagination along the way while keeping them coming back for more individualized enrichment.

Flashback LINK to Fritz’s 90 minute lesson:

Piano Students as Composers

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What to do in a 90-minute piano lesson? ( A 9-yr. old meets the challenge) Videos

Fritz is a bundle of energy. He comes to his 45-minute lesson each week before soccer practice and has an additional roster of sports activities that keep him in tip- top shape.

Into his third year of piano study, his favorite pieces include: “Bear” by Rebikov, which requires a rotation of the Left Hand to accommodate broken octaves in staccato. Next, “Clowns” by Gillock and “Lion” from Saint-Saens, “Carnival of the Animals.” You can tell that his adrenaline rush is well-channeled.

This past week, sister, Lucy, was off on a field trip so younger sib had a chance to double his lesson, to his dismay. I commiserated.

But how could we fill the time so it would pass by quickly without constant clock watching?

COMPOSING popped into my head. Why not revisit an activity that we’d tabled for a while?

In fact, two years ago, Fritz proudly displayed his masterpiece “Finding Gold” that evolved from an assigned five-finger position, or pentascale.

This time, the springboard would be our exploration of Intervals–specifically Major 2nds, known as whole-step distances.

(P.S. The French Impressionistic composer, Debussy, used this tonal palette in many of his piano and orchestral works.)


Our Creative Process:

Through a series of guided steps, Fritz created an engaging piece, titled “Ripples of Water” which enlisted random note choices from the original five finger whole-step position, and INVERSION, in which intervals of the primary melody are played in reverse. (a compositional device used by J.S. Bach and other great composers)

Fritz also learned about shifting registrations (playing two octaves up, for example) and creating a flourish or “roll” over his five-whole tones. (Or Major 2nds)

Finally, the use of sustain pedal was intrinsic to this exploration since it created a submerged sound that enhanced the “watery effect.”

Assignment: During the week, Fritz will practice his piece and prepare it to record for You Tube–a realistic goal to meet.

Flashback to Fritz’s first composing experience:


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My weekly breather in El Cerrito: Teaching munchkins in the East Bay (Piano lessons in progress–Videos)

I always look forward to my weekly getaway to El Cerrito because I can take wholesome deep breaths without choking on toxic Central Valley air. Besides, I also get to teach a few delightful munchkins and adults.

While the visit is all too short, I still relish my walks amidst the foliage as I ascend into the hills, looking down on a magnificent Bay panorama.

As a preview to my arrival, the Amtrak train glides along the water whetting my appetite for what’s to come.


After my arrival in El Cerrito, I walk to my studio location in a very old, established neighborhood with mature shade trees and lush greenery. It’s the perfect paradise for teaching piano.

Yesterday, Lucy 10, and Fritz 8 were filmed during part of their lessons.

Lucy has packed away 2 plus years of piano study with me, coming originally as a transfer student. Plagued by a method book addiction, she gradually freed herself of playing by finger number crutches and mundane chord formulas and climbed a mountain that led to a “Fur Elise,” driven peak experience.

On the way to the real deal, and not through puny transcriptions of great piano works transposed to C Major, she learned Intermediate level selections from the Baroque and Classical period.

Weaned from Bastien’s formulas and anything resembling, Lucy’s note reading improved as she was released from middle C position imprisonment.

Fritz, her younger brother, who jumped into the fray last year, has zoomed right along as well. He’s embarked upon repertoire from the Developing Artist Book 1, promising to perfect the Reinagle Minuet in preparation for his next You Tube appearance. His opening upload featured his own composition, “Finding Gold,” which was a big hit with his East Coast grandparents.

Yesterday he wanted to add his rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to his playlist.

So let’s roll Lucy and Fritz’s lessons as they unfolded just two days ago.

Lucy plays “Fur Elise”

Fritz jives with Mary Poppins music:

Last year, Fritz took the reigns as a composer:


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My own slow practicing, Presto Agitato, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (VIDEO)

This was an opportunity to sift through the first part of the last movement in slow motion following the collaboration with my adult student yesterday.

My below tempo practicing, was a baby step progression to a more bravado reading. (when ripening takes effect)

This particular practice routine fleshed out various harmonic landmarks, chordal blocks, and a need for a whole arm/ supple wrist approach.

PS Was that Aiden snoring in the background? He was hidden on the window sill under the blinds whooshing away.

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Piano Lesson: Fritz, Age 7, performs his composed piece, “FINDING GOLD” (Video)

Over a period of three weeks, seven year old Fritz, who’d been taking piano lessons for about 7 months, composed a piece that he titled, “Finding Gold.”

The student has been using Faber Primer Piano Adventures, with my inserted modifications. He warmed up this past Monday with Lesson Book p. 24, C-D-E-F-G March transposed to A Major followed by A minor, in Parallel and then Contrary Motion. The consciousness of “minor” occurred way back at the very beginning of study when he played “Balloons” (floating notes) with a the black key Eb inserted. Ever since he has been playing Major and minor when any opportunity presents. (He is reading music proficiently for his level of study, and has reached p. 59 in the Lesson Book)

Fritz is a very imaginative child who was enthusiastic about creating his own music.

On 3/21 I asked him to compose a four-measure treble melody in C Position, in 4/4 time using any combination of quarter notes, half notes, dotted quarter notes, and whole notes.

He was then asked to play the second phrase in the PARALLEL minor.
(He is familiar with this vocabulary as it has been used redundantly when he plays his Primer pieces in Major followed by minor)

His melody was completed on 3/21 at his lesson, and I helped with notation.

As part of Fritz’s assignment for the following week, I asked him to compose a bass line, placing his hand in C position. He could use single notes, chords, ties, whatever he chose. (He was aware of the parallel minor in the second phrase)

3/28: Fritz played his piece with an added bass line, which I helped him notate on manuscript paper. He surprised me by ending his second phrase with a C MAJOR chord. For the following week I asked him to title his piece, add dynamics, words, and an illustration.

4/4/11: Fritz brought his composition with dynamics and words inserted.
He had also included an illustration. His words matched the emotional content of the music. The second phrase in minor had a sad lyric, but the final measure with the C Major Chord reflected the celebration of FINDING GOLD.

I made the connection to the great composers, such as Handel who carefully realized the text in his Messiah!

Fritz’s words:
I like walking in the woods, It feels nice to me (first phrase)
Sometimes I feel lost and scared, but I find GOLD! (second phrase)

Fritz recorded his piece for You Tube on 4/4/11

Composing activities can be integrated into lessons periodically, and over the long term a student can produce a bound collection of pieces with accompanying illustrations if desired.

It’s not only a creative exploration but it advances knowledge of notation, form, and harmony. (A theory lesson is built into the activity)

Location: El Cerrito, California


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Individualizing Piano Study: How to avoid Method Book dependency

Over decades of teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that each student needs a custom designed long-term lesson plan. Method books only go so far.

Often they stratify the learning process, keeping students in an interminably drawn out, regressive C Major universe. For the most part, flats and sharps with Letter Name identifications are regarded as aliens, not welcomed into the musical cosmos until a student is so addicted to white notes that he can’t be easily detoxed. I was a such a victim, being fed John Thompson’s Primer series with pixies and parades. As a consequence, my fears of black notes linger. Do I need music therapy?

One of my African American students poked fun at the preponderance of white notes on a keyboard as evidence of hard core discrimination. We both chuckled, but at that the same time he didn’t realize that his observation had relevance to Method Books and their built in color line:

“Black notes are not welcomed here, right now.”

I don’t mean to knock Bastien, Faber, and any other Lesson, Performance, Theory, Technique and Artistry package, but the only way I can co-exist with these materials is to modify them as I go along. And the adjustments I choose will be different for each pupil, because mass produced, standardized education doesn’t work for me.

In a previous blog, Music Theory doesn’t have to be drudgery, I inserted p. 24 of Faber’s Piano Adventures that contained the “C-D-E-F-G March” as a perfect opportunity to introduce the Parallel Major/minor tonality by lowering the E to Eb. (Did I commit a sin advancing the clock on the FLAT?) If so, let the black notes go to hell.

For the vast majority of pupils who’ve entered the sanctuary of piano learning as beginners, they jump at any chance to create a different mood by a simple alteration. Knowing Left from Right is the only requirement. Flats descend to the LEFT by a HALF STEP. If a pupil doesn’t understand the quantity of a “half,” just rely on the tiniest distance on the piano and there you go. Kids love analogies, imaginary references to things. They can make up their own name for the smallest distance from one note to another. Could be “elf-like.” If Grieg liked elves, why not borrow the metaphor.

Some students might follow up, creating a rote piece in a new tonal center–like playing the “C-D-E-F-G March” in C minor and then in G minor. Wait a minute, TRANSPOSING for beginners isn’t part of the program when we get to p. 24 of the Lesson Book? Or if a creative activity is suggested, BLACK NOTES are once again barred, jailed, imprisoned, waiting to be paroled.

Who cares what method books do or don’t do? For lots of kids, improvising in the company of sharps and flats, makes piano study more interesting. And as a fringe benefit, students who are tonal adventurers, will find that their explorations become second nature.

Composing is a joyful activity. Ask the student to shuffle around the five notes that have been drilled into him as “C POSITION” in the METHOD BOOK and relocate the tonal center to G or D, (oops, another alien SHARP is introduced on the planet) Hang loose, and let the student name it. He won’t decompensate in the process.

The pupil can even vary the order of the notes, up and down, which means he might choose to skip, and NOT step. (Wait a minute, the METHOD book doesn’t introduce SKIPS at this point) Just a second. It’s the student’s piece–his creation and copyright. Such creative expression is not owned or controlled by the Method Book publishers.

Uh, oh, Should I dare to show up at this summer’s MTAC Convention without my Groucho Marx disguise? I think I’ll be otherwise, persona non grata.

All I’m saying is that short of designing individual materials for each student that we take what we are given and MODIFY, EXPAND to meet individual needs.

And while this discussion applies in the main to beginning pupils, it equally pertains to those who are at Intermediate and Advanced levels.

First off, I beat it out of the Method Book track as soon as I can see the forest from the trees. By and large, after Book One of Faber Piano Adventures (with my modifications) I’m off to Classical Repertoire. If a student would like popular pieces, those are added into the mix as long as the musical diet is balanced and enriched with scales, arpeggios, minuets, sonatinas and the rest.

I like Faber’s the “Developing Artist Series,” Book 2. Favorite selections: Johann Christian Bach’s Prelude in A minor and Andante; Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau.
and the Sonatina series starting with Book one:

Even at the Faber Lesson Book One level, I supplement with Gillock, a composer with amazing gifts. I love “Little Flower Girl of Paris,” “Argentina,” “Splashing in the Brook,” and most pieces contained in Accent on Solos, Level TWO.

Some pieces in this collection work for students in Level One, Faber. And perhaps more apply to students who’ve had modifications in their method books as they’ve moved along.

With such adjustments, NO child will be LEFT BEHIND.

Gillock’s “Flamenco” highlighted in a previous blog, is another fabulous piece that has a built in sequential pattern in its harmonic progression, so while the selection is flooded with alien black notes, the student can see and “feel” note grouping relationships that ease his anxiety during the learning process.

Side journeys to Kabalevsky’s “24 Pieces for Children Op. 39” (Palmer/Alfred) Schumann’s “Album for the Young” and Bartok’s Children’s Pieces, offer repertoire enrichment at early levels of study, easing the burden of a standardized teaching curriculum.

In conclusion, we need to give our students more leeway– Let them break out of the method book mold, and spread their creative wings.

At least it will be a start in the right direction, reaping rewards at every stage of learning.

PS As a footnote to this writing I have experienced the joy of using Irina Gorin’s Tales of Musical Journey that utilizes a creative approach to teaching children in the 4-7 year-old range. It is a book I highly recommend because of its early focus on tone production, and fluency of motion. It mobilizes the young imagination, and takes baby steps in its progression.


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The Piano Teacher as Composer: Using my MOONBEAMS collection as an example (Video)

Why not give composing a try? I did. For the most part, you don’t need a degree in composition, but a Theory background helps things along with voice leading in the bass part and understanding the rules of notation. Above all, intuition and inspiration are the main ingredients in any creative undertaking.

In 1985 I tried my hand at composing as my six children were falling off to sleep in their bedrooms. This exploration synchronized with my students having inspired Piano Duets By and For Children with my Introduction, “How to Help Children Compose.”

The Making of Moonbeams and other Musical Sketches

Seated at the piano with manuscript paper set on the music rack alongside a pencil with eraser, I let my imagination run free. Improvising and dancing across the keys, I created “Moonbeams,” a bi-chordal wash, using two basic sonorities submerged in one sustain pedal.

Animated creations followed: “March of the Elves,” “Fingers on the Run,” “Merry-Go-Round,” “Mosquito Dance,” and “Catch Me!”

Interspersed among these fast paced selections were more lyrical pieces: “Hebrew Melody and Variations,” “Ballerina,” and “Gliding on Ice.”

Perhaps it was an accident of fate that each of these character pieces had a teaching dimension.

The icing on the cake, of course, was my uncle David’s accompanying art work. I had sent him an audio cassette of the titled pieces, making the whole process a cross-country exchange. (from California to New York and back)

Here are a few samples from the album that can be used as Intermediate Level repertoire. I hope these pieces will encourage piano teachers to experiment with composing, and pass this creative activity down to their students.







*The pieces were not composed in this particular order. Considerations related to key and mood were paramount in organizing the collection.

Moonbeams was reviewed favorably in Clavier Magazine and found its way to the Music Teachers Association of California Convention held in Los Angeles. A student from the area performed “Hebrew Melody and Variations” at the New Materials session.