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Piano Lessons: After a long summer break, where to begin? (Videos)

The first lesson with a student who took the whole summer off for one reason or another is a challenge. I repeatedly ask myself should we pick up where we left off and drag out the last sonatina that became time worn well before its time or start a completely new musical project.

One student had a spurt of energy when I had propped Burgmuller’s “Ballade” on the piano rack in the company of a Willy Wonka favorite. It was a novel combination meant to get practicing into full swing after Labor Day. But would the “newness” of carefully selected pieces be enough to nourish the baby step follow through that would bring the pupil beyond a stumbling sight read?

Magic bullet pieces, even those requested by a returning student following a long break from lessons might not necessarily weather the course of learning in slow motion parcels to obtain confident mastery. The developmental period would include patient separate hand practicing with an eye and ear to phrase shaping, good fingering and noted dynamics.

Encouraging this more detailed approach to a new piece would be a challenge especially with gaps in weekly practicing and other competing activities getting in the way. But it might still be worth the effort to nudge a student along on the layered learning path with lots of singing back and forth at lessons.

An 8-year old student made big strides in her patient practicing module at home. Aside from working up pieces in Faber’s Piano Adventures, she chose some favorites outside the method book grid that musically blossomed in a matter of weeks.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” reached a lively tempo and became a centerpiece treat when she played it with me in duet form. Her next request was to study “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” so she could perform it on the electronic organ at the local sports stadium.

Her own built-in motivator drove her daily parceled out practicing and gave me ideas to spread around among other students.

Our local branch of the Music Teachers Association (MTAC) initiated its start of the year, pick-up-the-practicing momentum drive by scheduling Fall Festival recitals with various themes. (In the past these were planned for February to allow students time to get back to a regular practicing routine.)

The most popular was centered around “Halloween” with this description: “Students are invited to dress up in their Halloween costumes and play spooky music. Pieces do not have to be from a Halloween book. Classical pieces in minor keys often work well. You can even transpose a piece in a Major key to a minor key. Trophies will be awarded for the best costume and the spookiest piece.”

I thought about the 11-year old who was half-way through Burgmuller’s “Ballade” which I had tagged “Spooks” because of its mood and character. Perhaps she might be willing to pick up where she had left off back in June, planning graduated practicing in preparation for the late October MTAC sponsored event. At least goal-setting would frame our weekly meetings along the way.

About 8 of my students kicked off last season’s resumption of lessons by participating in the MTAC sponsored theme recitals. One wore a western style costume for “Halloween.”

Other recitals were “Dance” inspired, or classified under “General repertoire.” Duets for two players at one piano, or at separate pianos were part of combined theme categories. A 7-year old played Faber’s “Doorbell” with me.

Recitals with themes are a great idea, and I’m thinking that scheduling these under various headings during the year would provide a shared learning experience with parents, students, and family members in the audience.

Otherwise the MTAC’s mid-year “Celebration” Festival would invite students from all studios in the city to play compositions of various styles, awarding medallions for “Excellent” and “Superior” performances.

Every participant comes away from the event with something tangible in their hands: a Certificate and an attractive piano pin.

Surely, these medals, certificates and other rewards would be practicing motivators at any time of year.

Not to forget the MTAC’s Big Baroque Festival as a practicing enticement for Intermediate to Advanced level students. Last year’s event produced a vast array of beautiful performances one of which personally delighted me.

Finally, I can’t overlook the teenagers who have personally brought pieces to study in the beginning of the year that they’ve added to their sonatina roster.

These have included, “100 Years,” “Forever and Always,” “Hey Jude,” “You Raise Me Up,” and “Liz on Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice.

Here are videotaped snippets of pupils at various levels, playing their own personal choices that ignited their practicing:

From Mary Poppins:

From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:

“100 Years” and “Forever and Always”

“You Raise Me Up” (Early stage practicing with sub-divided counting)

And why not encourage composing to coincide with back-to-school, back-to-lessons time.

A motivated 7-year old student played his own piece and was excited about videotaping it for You Tube. His grandparents who lived back East enjoyed a cross-country sample of his creative effort.



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In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic bullet piece (VIDEO with Aiden Cat joining in)

There’s always a piece of music lurking somewhere that can save a young student from quitting piano. For those of us who teach the great masterworks, passing a cultural legacy to the next generation, we know lickety-split when it’s time to break out our ammunition: the magic bullet piece.


An 11-year old had gotten into a rut practicing Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau. As far as I could see, there was no tomorrow unless a treat was tossed her way a.s.a.p. Oddly, it came straight from the Chocolate Factory, compliments of Willie Wonka. And if this album had remained sequestered in a dark closet where it had amassed dust, it would have been headed for a meltdown.

But a twist of fate caused a reversal of fortune.

Not only did “Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo” come out of obscurity, but it stimulated my student’s musical appetite. Her slow and steady practicing paid off as she artfully navigated the Willy Wonka piece in the good company of Aiden cat who’d been wooed to the piano bench by a handful of Greenies. Once mesmerized by the mysterious, modal melody, he stayed put for over 30 minutes.

Currently, the student who was slipping and sliding, is now back on track with her piano studies, mixing it up with classical and popular. Down the line, additional morsels from Willy Wonka will keep her musical appetite primed. How about, “Pure Imagination,” and “The Candy Man.”

Please share your favorite magic bullet pieces:

Others that have worked: (Combined with minuets, sonatinas, sonatas, classical marches, Romantic character pieces, etc)

Arrangements of these selections can be found at appropriate levels:

Star Wars
Colors of the Wind
Beauty and the Beast
Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter
Phantom of the Opera
The Entertainer
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
In Dreams from Lord of the Rings
A Beatles Medley
Liz on Top of the World from Pride and Prejudice
West Side Story selections
Sound of Music medley
Looking through the Eyes of Love from Ice Castles

Added by Jessica:
Bella’s Lullaby from Twilight. Why oh why?

From Lisa:

Possible Magic Bullets for intermediate/advanced students …

* Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi’s theme from Charlie Brown)
* Theme from Pink Panther
* Bumble Boogie
* The Heart Asks Pleasure First (Theme from The Piano)
* Andrew Lloyd Webber
* Abba’s music from Mamma Mia
* Clocks by Coldplay (cool piano intro)
* Jon Schmidt does a lot of really neat stuff that is also technically challenging (he has several sheet music books available — I’d suggest “Waterfall,” “All of Me,” “Ridin’ West.”)
* William Joseph’s compositions — he has a couple books out and my personal faves are “Within” and “Piano Fantasy”