4 Awesome Tips to Help Organize your Music Studio Darlene Irwin     September 06, 2016

September is here and that means it's time to get organized and ready to teach. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming because there is so much to do. In this blog post, I'd like to share with you four awesome organization ideas that can help you prepare for the fall. I've also included some free downloadable files.

 #1 Using an iPad (or other device) for Scheduling

There are so many different devices available with built-in calendars. If you haven’t done so already, now may be the time to embrace some of that new technology. I can only comment on Apple products because that’s what I have been using. My iPad has really changed the way that I organize my teaching schedule. The calendar works so much better than my previous hand-written sheets. Here are some of the advantages of this amazing tool.

  • You can set up your teaching schedule for the fall (lesson times and students). Once you have entered a student in the first week, you can have that event repeat throughout the year. Just make sure you go through the calendar and delete the lessons from the holiday weeks!
  • You can colour-code the entries. I use different colours for regular lessons, missed lessons, part-time lessons etc. (You'll have to delete that week's repeating entry and re-enter it if you want to change colour). As with any app, there's always a learning curve as you try to adapt the program for your own needs. But I can tell you from experience, it's well worth the effort!
  • At the beginning of each lesson, you can set an alarm to sound when the lesson is finished (with a 5-minute warning). This really helps you to stay on time.
  • You can add comments to specific lessons using the notes at the bottom of each event (i.e. reasons for missed or changed lessons)
  • Lessons can easily be moved around making re-scheduling a breeze.
  • The search function is fantastic. In an instant, you can see all the lessons for one student for the entire year.
  • The entire calendar is backed up in the cloud, so you won’t lose any information.
  • The calendar on the iPad syncs through the cloud with any of your other Apple devices.

       #2 Studio Events Calendar

      Another great tool is my one-page Yearly Studio Calendar. You can use the same chart each year. Just change the dates and add all the important information that your students and parents need to know for the whole year (i.e. master classes, recitals, festivals, holidays, deadlines, exams, upcoming events, vacations, etc).  

      This Calendar can be e-mailed to your parents. I place a copy of the Calendar on the bulletin board in my waiting room. I also tape a copy in the back of each student’s Organizer so that we can refer to it at their lesson throughout the year. 

      This year, I have 3 PDF fillable versions of the Yearly Studio Calendar to share. All you have to do is download the file you want and then add the information for your own teaching year. 

      File #1 - Studio Calendar with all RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) dates and Canadian holidays.

      File #2 - Studio Calendar with Canadian holidays only (for teachers who do not use the RCM system).

      File #3 - Studio Calendar with US holidays only.

      Note - PDF Fillable files that are sent by e-mail need to be opened with a program that reads the filled-in information such as Adobe Reader. Some e-mail programs will not show the filled-in information, however the information is still there.

       #3 Yearly Student Performance Tracking Chart

      I would also like to share my very handy ‘Student Performance Tracking Chart’ (Excel file) for organizing student performances throughout the year. You can add the student’s names plus all the dates for master classes, recitals and other performances. Then print this file and put it on a clipboard in your studio. This chart can then be used for performance planning throughout the year for your entire class.

      You can add pieces (in pencil) to the chart as they are chosen throughout the teaching week. I find that it’s faster in the lesson to work with a paper copy. Every 2 weeks or so, you can update the chart on the computer and print it again. That way, you'll know exactly what is being worked on for performances at all times. There's a special column in the chart for keeping track of total playing time for some of the pieces. This is useful when it comes to timing recitals, competitions or master classes.

      Here's the original file for my Student Performance Tracking Chart. You can download it and then add the names, dates and events from your own studio. I've also included 11 other worksheets for master class and recital program planning (see tabs at the bottom of the downloaded excel sheet).

       #4 The Student Music Organizer - The Complete Dictation Book

      Here are some of the benefits of using the The Student Music Organizer:

      • Saves time in a lesson. The book is so easy to use….all you have to do is fill it in and it’s designed to last for the entire year.
      • 8 1/2 x 11” format - there's lots of room for writing on each lesson page. Manuscript is also included at the bottom of each page.
      • Some sections included: Goal Setting, Favourite Pieces, Exam and Practice Planning.
      • Lots of History Reference Material: Composer Chart, Summary Sheets for Musical Time Periods (Baroque, Classical etc). 
      • Also includes Music Dictionaries (with terms grouped according to style, speed, touch, etc), Basic Music Theory Reference Guides and a very handy Comparative Fingering Chart for keyboard scales.

        Organization is the key to having a well-run studio. My students and parents especially appreciate it when they know exactly what is happening throughout the year. With a little planning ahead of time, you can sail into the fall knowing that everything is ready to go. 

        ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎ 

        Piano Photo by Miki Yoshihito

        Fall Photo by Darlene Irwin

        3 Super Effective (and Fun) Ideas for Teaching a New Piece Darlene Irwin     May 09, 2016

        Starting a new piece with a student can sometimes be a daunting challenge. It should be something that appeals to your student and helps them progress musically towards their goals. It should also contain sound pedagogical ideas. Some questions that you need to ask yourself are….what time period do you want your student to explore? Do they need a certain type of piece for an upcoming exam? Does the piece help them to reach their goals? Can your student handle the technical challenges within the piece? And most importantly… they like it!!

        OK….so you and your student have picked the perfect piece. Now what? How do you make this piece fun, attainable, and approachable? In this blog post, I’d like to share with you some of the ideas that have worked for my students.

        Introducing….Colours, Sections, and Arrows!

        Colouring the Music

        • After we have chosen a new piece, the first thing we do is colour all the markings on the score. (I know…some teachers may not be comfortable colouring the score. I find that my students really enjoy doing this. They tell me that the piece doesn’t look ‘worked on’ if it’s not coloured!)
        • I have a code that we use…Forte is pink, piano is yellow etc. We colour all the other markings green…tenutos, accents, Italian terms & signs. My theory is that when they see certain colours, they will associate that colour with the dynamics marked in the music. We talk about each marking as we colour it. Accents, including tenutos, tend to hide on the page. They are much easier to see when they are coloured green (see previous blog post for details). We also discuss key signature, time signature, articulation, phrasing and any terms or signs.
        • Colouring has worked for students of all ages. A fugue is MUCH easier to learn when the voices are shown in different colours. (This could be done on a copy rather than on the original score).
        • Over the years, my students have done many exams, recitals, evaluations, festival classes and auditions. It's important to note that adjudicators and examiners have never had a problem with or even mentioned the fact that my students were using music that was coloured.


        • Break the piece down into logical, manageable sections, according to phrasing, structure and motifs. I do this by drawing a pencil line at the end of each section. The sections are then labeled A, B, C etc. If a long song has more than 26 sections, we have actually resorted to using double letters! (AA,BB etc.)
        • Make sure that repeated sections are divided the same way i.e. in the recapitulation of a Sonata or Sonatina.
        • As you are marking the sections, you can discuss a little of the history, style and form of the piece. You can also make note of any key modulations and mark the main cadence points.
        • When teaching a new song, I like to have them start by playing the left hand first. We compare the sections and look for patterns. Check and see if the patterns are repeating. Do they change key? Do the intervals change? Are there any sequence or imitation sections? Are there any variations in the patterns?
        • Have your student start by learning 1 or 2 sections, hands separately and then hands together. You can add more sections as they progress week by week. That way, if there are mistakes, they can be fixed quickly. This saves time because they learn it properly the first time.
        • Having a piece divided into sections is also essential for memorization. It provides safely nets all the way through the piece - places where your student can jump if they have a lapse in memory. 
        • Boxes are small parts within a larger section. They can be labeled Box#1, Box#2 etc. These are very tricky passages within a larger section that need special attention.
        • Have your students practice the boxes hands separately, then hands together at a slow tempo, until it is fluent and played correctly. A box can also be subdivided into mini-boxes!


          • Arrows are great for correcting learned mistakes. I use the coloured Post-it Flags (Mini Arrows). They can be placed on the music to point to specific problems, you can write on them and they can be removed once the mistake is corrected. They are also reusable!
          • As I’m listening to a piece in a lesson, I can quickly mark mistakes with these arrows. I can then go back at the end of the performance and explain why the arrows are there.
          • The next time I hear the piece, I can removed arrows from issues that are fixed or move them if there are other problems. The really cool part is that I can place the arrows as the student plays the piece. It's quick and easy. This helps me to remember what I have heard and what I want them to fix. It also saves me from having to write a lot of notes!
          • You could take the arrows a step farther and colour code them for certain problems i.e. blue for wrong notes, yellow for missing dynamics, red for phrasing issues, pink for missed rests etc.
          • Sometimes my student's pieces are COVERED with arrows! When the problems are fixed, the arrows are removed. My students love trying to get rid of all the arrows on their music!
          • We do remove all arrows just before a performance such as an exam or audition.

           Here are a couple of examples of how I would use these techniques. These pieces are coloured and divided into sections. The problem areas have been boxed. I have used red arrows to show phrasing concerns, yellow arrows for problems with dynamics and green arrows for other problems.

          Gavotte in D Major


          Sonatina in G Major

          As a teacher, I always strive to make the music learning process as fun as possible. My student love to colour their music. The sections and boxes make it so much easier to learn and memorize a piece AND they have safety spots throughout their song. The arrows let them know exactly what needs to be fixed. Have fun exploring these ideas with your students.

          ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

          10 Reasons Why Everyone Should be Listening to Classical Music Brooke Neuman (Guest Blog Post -     February 22, 2016


          Many students are under the impression that classical music is “boring”. What they don’t know, however, is that classical music actually has a number of mental and physical benefits.

          In fact, there have been numerous studies conducted that have proven that listening to classical music can help improve sleep quality, boost creativity, and increase productivity.

          For instance, listening to classical music for just 45 minutes prior to bed can help improve sleep quality, according to a study of people with sleep issues.

          Not only does listening to classical music help people fall asleep, but it can also improve people’s moods. Listening to classical music helps increase dopamine secretion, which activates the brain’s reward and pleasure center.

          Wait, there’s more! Below are a few more amazing benefits of listening to classical music. Share this infographic with your students and they might just change how they feel about the musical genre.



          This article originally appeared on Brooke Neuman is a music editor at TakeLessons, an online marketplace that connects thousands of teachers and students for local and live online music lessons.



          Discovering the Secrets of Composition Darlene Irwin     February 01, 2016

          Recently I attended a very interesting and informative Music Composition Workshop given by Frances Balodis (founder of Music for Young Children). It was hosted by the Barrie Branch of the ORMTA (Ontario Registered Music Teachers’ Association). This was a student workshop, but the teachers were also invited to participate. The class that I attended was the first part of a 3-part series.

          I wasn't sure what to expect. Composition is something that I’ve never even tried. However I also feel that it’s very important that we, as teachers, be constantly learning and expanding our horizons. So I thought I'd give it a try. I was so impressed with the whole experience that I just had to write about it!

          One of the first things I learned was that composition is not something to be afraid of. The students in the class were thrilled to be able to write a song that was 'theirs'. They were very excited when Mrs. Balodis shared their compositions with the class. The best part was that I felt like a student again, learning new things and trying something totally out of my comfort zone. And it was so much fun.

          Here are some of the composition secrets that I learned from Frances.

          Secret #1: One of the hardest things about composing is knowing where to start. First of all, you need to come up with a musical idea or theme (motif). Your idea doesn’t have to be complicated….maybe only 3 or 4 notes. Choose a time signature and a key signature…..C major is a good place to start. Wow….that’s not too complicated. I was starting to think that maybe I could do this!

          Secret #2: It's important to understand the basic concepts of composition so that you can enhance your motif. These ideas were presented to the students in a very ingenious, creative and easy-to-understand manner.  

          Here are some cool ways to add variety to your motif:

          • Repetition - repeat at the same octave, an octave higher or lower.
          • Sequence - repeat up or down a note.
          • Retrograde - write your theme backwards.
          • Inversion - write your theme upside down.
          • Rhythmic - shift change the rhythm of your idea.
          • Fragmentation - break your idea up into smaller pieces.
          • Augmentation - make your note values longer and/or intervals bigger.
          • Diminution - make your note values smaller and/or intervals smaller.
          • Conclusion - write an ending.
          • IMPORTANT - always have a title, tempo and dynamic markings so that others will know how to reproduce your piece. 

          Secret #3: Study a variety of pieces to find examples of these techniques. Mrs. Balodis shared a few compositions with us and pointed out some of these concepts in the music.

          Secret #4: Start writing your motif...remember to keep it simple. Everyone was invited to write a short melody based on one single idea. Frances played each of the student's compositions and gave lots of positive and helpful comments and suggestions. Each child was made to feel that their piece was special.

          My first attempt was called "A Walk In The Park". It was pretty basic. We then had to take our original melody and expand it...maybe add another idea in the middle for a contrast and then repeat the original idea again (ABA form). I added a middle section in the relative minor key and called it "A Surprise In The Park". I was actually thinking about seeing a snake!

          For homework, we had to find 2 or 3 simple pieces and identify some of the compositional techniques used by the composers. I chose to study a piece called "Allegro in B Flat Major" (K3) by Mozart. I’ve labeled some of the compositional techniques used in this work. (It’s interesting to note that Mozart was only 6 years old when he wrote this piece!)

          Then we were asked to write another original work using some of these ideas. 

          Here’s part of my composition that I wrote this week. I’ve called it "Western Sunset". (I played this piece for one of my students this past week and now she wants to play it at our recital in June. How exciting is that!)

          Here's an excerpt from my piece:

          Composition can be fun, rewarding and accessible. Mrs. Balodis has given this workshop series throughout Ontario to various groups of students. At the end of the first 3-hour session, one of the youngest students made this comment: "Was that an hour class?" Time really does fly when you’re having fun!

           ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

          Photo credit: Alberta Sunset (Calgary, AB), pictures of Frances Balodis by Darlene Irwin

          2008 vs 2015 - New Technical Requirements Simplified Darlene Irwin     October 25, 2015

          In Canada, music teachers are very fortunate to have several exam systems to choose from. Two of these systems include Conservatory Canada and The Royal Conservatory of Music. They both offer many excellent resources for assisting teachers and they both have an accredited examination system which includes all levels of study in many disciplines.

          Every seven to ten years, The Royal Conservatory of Music revises their syllabus and teaching materials. The previous revision for the Piano Discipline was in 2008. The changes to the Piano Discipline for 2015 are extensive, exciting and sometimes overwhelming! These changes involve all aspects of the curriculum, including repertoire, technique, ear training and sight reading. 

          I found an excellent article this week published by Dr. Chris Foley on his very informative website The Collaborative Piano Blog. It's entitled 10 Things You Need to Know About the 2015 Royal Conservatory Celebration Series and Piano Syllabus. He lists the main changes to the RCM examination system with many great links for additional information. There are many teachers, including myself, who use this system for their students. It's important that teachers be aware of all of these changes as our students prepare for exams in the upcoming months and years.

          For this blog post, I would like to focus on the new 2015 Royal Conservatory of Music Technical Requirements, comparing the new material to the previous requirements of 2008. Here are some of the main differences between the 2008 and the 2015 Technical Requirements, as listed in the new Royal Conservatory of Music Syllabus:

          • Across the board, the 2015 technical requirements are more streamlined and easier to understand. Generally, there are less requirements per grade. However, teachers need to study the syllabus very carefully because there are quite a few additions as well.
          • Previously, one of the hardest thing for students on exams was the confusion of having to do scales hands separately or hands together, one octave, two octaves or three octaves, legato or staccato. Scales, triads or chords were sometimes hands separately two octaves AND hands together one octave. This has now been simplified. For the most part, staccato scales have been removed altogether.
          • Minor Dominant 7ths have also been removed. They are the same as the major Dominant 7th so it tended to be confusing for students. 

            Here is a grade by grade comparison (Level A - Grade 10). I have listed some of the main changes in each grade:

            • Level A - new C+ Triad Sequence, ascending only, solid and broken.
            • Level B - slight changes to Penta-Scales. Students are now required to do all inversions ascending and descending for broken triads.
            • Grade 1 - minimal changes. Requirements reduced from 26 to 23. Chromatic scale is now 1 octave instead of  tonic to dominant only.
            • Grade 2 - huge changes. Requirements reduced from 41 to 24, six key signatures instead of eight, no natural minor scales, no contrary motion. However, there is one more formula pattern.
            • Grade 3 - huge changes. Requirements reduced from 53 to 23, 2 fewer key signatures, no hands separate AND hands together scales. All scales are hands together, 2 octaves except the chromatic scale. All triads are hands separately only, 2 octaves.
            • Grade 4 - requirements reduced from 54 to 33. Seven key signatures instead of 8, no f#- scale, no cadences required for triads. All triads are now hands together, 2 octaves.
            • Grade 5 - requirements reduced from 59 to 43, no f#- or c#- scale, formulas have been changed from E Flat+/c- to A+/a-,  no diminished 7ths.
            • Grade 6 - two fewer key signatures, 2 formula patterns instead of 3, no hands separate 4-note chords, arpeggios root position only.
            • Grade 7 - four fewer key signatures, no b flat-, 2 formula patterns instead of 4, no hands separate 6ths or broken octaves. Cadences are longer.
            • Grade 8 - four fewer key signatures, no 3-octave staccato scales, formula patterns changed from A+, B+, B flat+, b- to E flat+/e flat-, no octave scales. Cadences are longer.
            •  Grade 9 - six key signatures instead of twelve, no b flat-, g#- or f#- scales, c#- and f- formula patterns instead of b flat- and g#-, no chromatic octaves. More complicated cadences.
            • Grade 10 - Huge changes. Requirements reduced from 294 to 108. Six key signatures instead of twelve, no formula patterns, no special exercises, Alternate pattern chords only (no regular broken chords). Cadences are more complicated. 

            I have found in my own teaching that it's so much easier for students to have this material written down on one organized chart. The 2015 scale charts are now available on our website in hard copy or in digital format. Student Technique Organizers are a great resource for both teachers and students.

            Here are some of the reasons that my students love using The Student Technique Organizers:

            • Scale Charts save time. They are super organized, simple and easy-to-use one-page colour-coded guides for each grade.
            • Charts are also weekly practice guides. All the material for each level is divided into six days.
            • Students or teachers can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering reminders etc.

            Technique is a very important part of any piano exam. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post entitled "Terrific Technique Takes Time". In this article, I talked about the Seven Timely Tips for Terrific Technique. These tips have helped me as I have prepared my students for their practical exams and I hope that they will help you as well. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.

            Successful technique requires great Preparation, Perseverance, Patience and Practice.

            Have your students take time to prepare their scales, chords and arpeggios well and they will be rewarded with greater technical facility and an increased confidence to do the best that they can on their practical exams.

            ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

             Photo credits: Playing Piano, 12-2009Time, 01-2008 


            Extra, Extra, Read All About It….Easy and Effective Music Studio Newsletters Darlene Irwin     September 06, 2015

            Do you send out a Music Studio Newsletter at the beginning of the teaching year?

            Well, if you don’t, then maybe this year is a good time to start! Communication is the key to running a successful music studio. Having your own Music Studio Newsletter is a great way to kick off the teaching year in an organized and professional way.

            I are probably wondering....where do I start?? In this blog post, I’d like to give you some quick and easy ideas on how to effectively write your own Music Studio Newsletter. A simple letter format works best for me because I have quite a bit of information that I want to share and I need the extra room. However, if you are feeling creative, you could also use a fancy template that allows you to add pictures to give your newsletter a little more punch. Programs like Word or Pages have sample Newsletters that you can easily adapt for your own use.




            Planning Steps for Writing Your Music Studio Newsletter

            Organize your Information Before You Start to Write

            • Plan your teaching schedule well ahead of time. How many weeks are you teaching during the year? When are you taking holidays? When do lessons end for the year? Parents need to know this so they can plan their own holidays.
            • Set dates for your important events such as master classes and recitals. Parents can add these events to their calendars at the beginning of the year. Students are more likely to attend if they know the dates well in advance. Make sure that you have all other important deadlines and dates for things like exams, auditions and festival classes.

            Start with a Friendly Introduction

            • Begin by welcoming all returning and new students. You can also highlight any new programs or activities. Be enthusiastic….let your students know how excited you are to see them again. 

              Explain Studio Programs or Incentives

              Highlight Student Accomplishments

              • Students and parents love to hear about the successes of other students in your studio. It helps to make them feel part of the group. Make sure that you have permission to share this information. 

              Review Policies and Procedures

              Share Other Important Information

              • Include other information such as teacher qualifications, specific requests i.e.wash hands before lesson, where parents should park, how you would like to be addressed by students, piano tuner information, what is the best way to contact you etc.

              End on a Positive Note

              • Your newsletter can help set the tone for the entire year. It also helps to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings. Be positive, encouraging and excited about the upcoming year.

              Include a One-Page Studio Calendar

              • A yearly studio calendar is a great way to keep everyone organized. I make a copy of my Studio Calendar for my students and then tape it in the back of their Student Music Organizer. That way, we can refer to it all year long.

                Free Downloads

                1) Click HERE to download the first style of Newsletter - a simple 5-page  format without pictures or graphics. The file is an easy-to-use Word Document (doc). Feel free to copy, add, change, or delete whatever you like. Once your newsletter is completed, re-save it as a PDF file for mailing to parents and students. It's best not to send your original document file.

                2) Click HERE to download a 6-page WORD template for a fancier Newsletter with pictures. It looks better, but there are a few of drawbacks to using this format. It's a little fussier to work with and it has limited writing space because of all the graphics. Even as a PDF, it's also a much larger file (6.1MB) . This is a consideration when you are sending your newsletter electronically. 

                3) Click here to download a handy 2015/2016 Studio Calendar Template. All of the statutory holidays have been added plus all deadline dates for Royal Conservatory (RCM) exams. It’s in a FILLABLE PDF format, so you can easily add your own dates for events and deadlines specific to your own studio.

                In conclusion, I’d like to share with you a statement that I always include at the end of my Music Studio Newsletter.

                “It is very important to me that your child enjoys their music lessons.
                My primary goal as a teacher is to assist my students
                to develop a love of music that will last for a lifetime. 
                Remember, teaching is like a triangle.
                The parent and the teacher are at the bottom supporting the student at the top.
                Working together as a team is the best way to ensure musical success. 
                I am looking forward to another exciting musical year together.”

                Once you have completed your Studio Newsletter and Calendar, you can quickly and easily e-mail both files to all of your students.  Parents will be grateful that you took the time to keep them informed and students will know what you expect of them throughout the year. Have fun writing your own Music Studio Newsletter.

                ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

                An Enriching Alternative to Competitions Darlene Irwin     June 22, 2015

                This year in my studio, I decided to try something completely different. This past spring, I hosted a ‘Music Enrichment Day’ for my students. This was not a competition, but rather like having a mini lesson with another teacher. Each student had the opportunity to perform two to four songs while I sat in the waiting area the entire morning so that I could encourage them and keep things running smoothly. Memorization was not mandatory, but it was encouraged. Our guest teacher was my friend and colleague, Frances Balodis. 

                My students participated for various reasons. Some wanted to gain confidence performing for another teacher. Others were preparing for an upcoming exam. Some just wanted to share their music and perform the best that they could. For some, it was their first time playing for another teacher. One brave adult student played 2 songs from memory. He was so proud of himself because he had not performed in many years and this was WAY out of his comfort zone! 

                My ultimate goal was for each student to continue to grow and develop as musicians. 

                Here are five tips to help you plan the best Music Enrichment Day ever:

                Think Ahead

                • Pick a date early. Let your students know in September that you are planning a special musical event in the spring. This year, April worked well because I had several students doing exams in June. 
                • I did charge a registration fee for this event. This gave me funds I needed to pay the adjudicator plus a little extra for treats and adjudicator awards. 
                • All registration forms and fees were collected by the middle of February. Click here to download a fillable PDF Information Sheet and a also a Registration Form that you could use for your own Music Enrichment Day. Feel free to copy and change these forms to suit your own needs.

                Finding the Right Person

                • Book the adjudicator early. Find a teacher in your area who shares your vision of teaching. I wanted someone who was competent, kind and understanding. 
                • You could keep the cost down by teaming up with another teacher and offering to listen to their students as an exchange. 

                Timing is Everything

                • Know the length of each piece being played. This will help you to plan the day.
                • Allow extra time so that the adjudicator can work on one or two problem areas. My students loved the fact that they had a mini lesson with Frances. She took the time to demonstrate and even danced a Bourrée with one of them! Click here to download a scheduling sheet (Excel).

                Make it Special


                Have Fun

                • Music Enrichment Day is a great idea, especially for students who feel intimidated or overwhelmed with a formal festival or competition. It's also excellent for those who are performing for the very first time. Above all, you want this to be a fun and encouraging experience for everyone. 

                My students had a great time. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here’s what some of them had to say about our 2015 Music Enrichment Day:

                • “I liked how she taught us different things that we could do with our songs”.
                • “It was fun! It wasn’t stressful and I wasn’t scared. The lady was really nice”.
                • "I really liked that she's a composer and I got to play a piece that she had written! It was very cool to know what her ideas and thoughts were when she wrote the song. She told me what she was imagining. It was amazing!
                • “She gave us lots of great advice. I loved that it was such a comfortable feeling”.
                • “This was my first time playing for someone else. I liked that she taught me something. It was fun when she showed me how to dance to my Bourrée”.
                • “Miss Frances was really nice. She allowed us to let loose and play our best and she gave us great tips on how to improve our songs”.
                • “I got to play in front of someone that I didn’t know. She helped me get ready for my exam”.
                • “We got to work with an actual composer. She made me feel welcome”.
                • “She liked my songs AND we got treats afterwards!”
                • From a Grade 8 Student - “I loved how friendly she was. It wasn't intimidating at all and I instantly felt comfortable playing for her. Her passion for music was so obvious through her comments and excitement when she found out what songs I was playing for my exam. I thought it was a very encouraging event and made me feel more confident about my songs”.

                And from my adult student (who also had 2 of his children participate). 

                • “We had an opportunity to get an unbiased 3rd-party view. It provided validation for what I was doing and for what my teacher was teaching. I also liked that we were expected to perform at a high level. This encouraged me to work hard. It was a great opportunity to perform with nothing on the line. The most important thing was that she was kind and encouraging to everyone”.

                Music Enrichment Day is a great opportunity for students to perform their pieces for another professional in a relaxed, friendly environment. It's also a great way to help students gain performance experience and confidence. Frances was the perfect choice for an adjudicator. She was able to reinforce the things that I had been saying in my teaching. Repetition is always good, especially from another person! My student’s playing improved significantly after this event. In the end, everyone had a wonderful time sharing their music. 

                Have fun planning your own Music Enrichment Day.

                ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

                Terrific Technique Takes Time Darlene Irwin     April 13, 2015

                Spring is in the air and many music students are busy preparing for practical exams.

                As the exam approaches, quite a lot of time is spent preparing and memorizing all the required pieces. However, it is VERY important that students also take time to work on their scales, chords and arpeggios. Successful technique requires great perseverance, patience and preparation.

                Here are seven teaching tips that have helped my students to do their very best on the technical portion of their exams.



                 Take Time to Learn Correct Fingering

                • Fingering matters. Learn the correct scale fingering from the start. Fingering is also essential for fluent triads. Watch the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle of the triads.
                • Say the finger numbers out loud as you play scales hands separately. This will help to reinforce fingering. Learn to play one key correctly before attempting to play the others.
                • Drill, drill drill. Muscle memory takes time. Playing scales correctly is like learning to ride a bicycle….with enough practice, they eventually become second nature.
                • Skeleton Scales are a fun way to help students learn fingering and visualize patterns. Play a C+ scale (RH) - 1 on C, 2 and 3 together on D and E, 1 on F, 2, 3 and 4 together on G, A and B, 1 on C and so on up and down the scale. Repeat with the left hand. Once you have mastered C+, try this exercise in different keys.

                 Take Time to Use The Metronome

                • The Metronome is your best friend. Play scales with the metronome from the very beginning.
                • The metronome is also 'The Great Controller'. You must learn to control the notes… can’t let the notes control you!
                • LISTEN carefully and make sure you are not going faster or slower. Try to ‘Catch the Beat’
                • Slow practice gives you time to listen and think about arm weight and tone production. The scales need to be played consistently and correctly. Only then can you start to increase the speed.
                • Remember…..Slow practice is really Fast Practice in Slow Motion.

                Take Time to Discover Patterns

                • Know your key signatures. Watch for and compare Relative Major and Minor scales. Did you know that the descending Melodic Minor scale is the same as it’s Relative Major?
                • Watch the 4th finger in hands-separate scales. It is almost always played on the same key. The 3rd and 4th fingers generally take turns.
                • In the hands-together scales with the pattern 123123412312345, the 3rd fingers generally play at the same time.
                • Identify all of your required scales that have the same patterns and practice them one after the other.
                • Memorize these three tricky scales separately (f#-, g#- and c#- melodic). Be careful because the pattern changes on the way down.
                • ‘The Student Music Organizer’ has a very handy Comparative Fingering Chart on the back inside cover. This can be colour-coded to show which scales share the same fingering patterns.
                • For hands-together scales, watch the right hand on the way up and the left hand on the way down.
                • For scales containing lots of black keys, watch black and white keys for patterns. i.e. G flat+ - play the white keys closes to the 3-black keys. D flat+ - play the upper white key each time. B+ - play the lower white key each time.
                • I call d- and g- harmonic the ‘Grand Canyon’ scales. You have to jump from black key to black key across the canyon (2 white keys). The f#- harmonic scale has a white-white canyon!
                • Dominant and Diminished 7ths also have patterns with the white and black keys.
                • When arpeggios start on black keys, the thumb generally comes on the first white key (unless the notes are all black).


                Take Time to Practice Technique All Year Long

                • Technique will not cram well…..practicing all year long builds confidence and finger strength.
                • All technique should be up to grade speed before applying for an exam.
                • Challenge yourself - strive to have your technique at the speed of the next grade.

                Take Time to be Organized

                • The Student Technique Organizers are a great resource for both teachers and students. These handy Scale Charts are one-page practice guides for the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) technical requirements.
                • Scale Charts save time. You can tell at a glance what’s hands-separate, what’s hands-together, what’s one octave or what’s 2 octaves. The major keys are in upper case and the minor keys are in lower case.
                • The Scale Charts are colour-coded and easy-to-read: green for hands-separately, white for hands together. Diminished 7th are also colour-coded. There are only 3 of them…the rest are inversions of the originals.
                • Scales are listed on the top of the chart, chords in the middle and arpeggios at the bottom.
                • The charts are also Weekly Practice Guides. (divided into six days)
                • You can write specific information in the boxes i.e. key signature, raised notes, fingering etc.
                • On-Line digital Scale Charts or regular charts will be available shortly for the new 2015 requirements.

                Take Time to Plan Your Exam

                • Start your exam with technique. This helps to warm up your fingers. It also lets you get a feel for the piano and the arm weight required to produce the sound that you want AND it gives you time to relax and feel comfortable in the room before playing memorized pieces. When you start with your technique, you are telling the examiner that you are well prepared….go ahead, ask me f#- melodic….I CAN DO IT!!
                • Mock Exams help. (See previous blog post - ‘8 Essential Keys for Successful Exam Preparation’).  Scroll to the bottom of the blog post for lots of great ideas on doing Mock Exams with students.

                Take Time to Listen and Think Before you play

                • In your exam, mentally prepare to play each scale, chord or arpeggio. Pre-think the patterns and where you are going before you start.
                • Listen carefully to what the examiner has asked for…then repeat it over in your mind. Is it right hand or left hand, Harmonic or Melodic, legato or staccato? Don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat the request.

                Successful exams require strong technique and strong technique takes time. Work on your technique all year long, not just before an exam. Practicing technique every day is like going to the gym for your fingers.

                Take time to prepare and you will be rewarded with a greater technical facility and you will have the confidence you need to do your very best on your exam. 

                ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


                Photo credits: Playing Piano, 12-2009, Time, 01-2008 



                8 Essential Keys for Successful Exam Preparation Darlene Irwin     February 08, 2015

                Exams…the very thought can strike fear into the hearts of many a student! But they can also be an important part of the musical journey. Successful exam preparation is a HUGE part of what we do as teachers. I often say that passing an exam is like opening a musical door. As a student completes an exam, he passes through that door and enters a whole new level of music. 

                There are many wonderful Conservatory systems offering graded exams for students. I use the Royal Conservatory of Music Examination (RCM) for my students. It’s a great way for them to logically and systematically pass through the various levels. This past year, 9 of my students completed their piano exams, ranging from Grade 1 to 8.  All marks were 84% or higher. Several were 90% or higher including two Grade 7's with 92%. My Grade 8 played his exam just 2 weeks ago. He received 91%!

                I would like to share with you some ideas that have helped me prepare my students for exams.

                (Note....I'm giving away FREE mock exam charts at the end of this blog post).


                KEY #1    BE READY


                Are You Prepared for the Next Level?

                • Moving too quickly through early grades can lead to discouragement later on. 
                • Students need to have the technical facility and sight reading skills before they start taking exams. This can take two to three years for a beginner.
                • Each student is different. Sometimes it's good to do a junior exam so that students become familiar with the process. Other times, it's better to wait until they are older and more mature. Some students need a certain grade for a school credit.
                • Exams are not for everyone. Some students enjoy doing recitals or master classes. Others prefer competitions. The most important thing is that they learn to love music. Find out what they like. Encourage them to do lots of different styles of music, including duets and trios. 

                 KEY #2    GIVE IT TIME

                Long-term Planning is Critical

                • Once a student is ready, it can takes 6-8 months to prepare for a junior exam (Pre Gd 1 - Grd 3). Intermediate exams may take an entire year. Senior exams usually take longer.
                • All of this depends on how hard they work, how quickly they learn and how busy they are with family, school and other activities.
                • Last-minute preparation leads to frustration for both the student and the teacher.
                • An effective learning technique that I use is....have students learn and memorize their exam pieces early in the year, put them away for a time and don't play them, then bring them back and perfect them.
                • Have them play other pieces at the same time. That way, they don't get tired of their exam pieces.
                • Technique, Sight Reading and Ear Training are worth over 30 marks on an RCM exam AND they can't be crammed. Work consistently on these areas throughout the year. 

                KEY #3     PICK PIECES CAREFULLY

                Strategic Piece Selection

                • Try picking pieces that are in the syllabus but not in the current books. Students love to feel that they are doing something unique. It’s also refreshing for an examiner to hear something totally different.
                • In the RCM system, you can replace one study with a Popular selection OR a ‘Teacher’s Own Choice’ (Grade 3 and up). 
                • Pick pieces that will highlight the student's strengths. 
                • Here are some interesting and varied pieces that my students have chosen recently. All of these pieces work well for exams.
                Grade 1March of the Terrible Trolls (Linda Namath) List B (Canadian Composer)
                Grade 2Land of the Silver Birch (Nancy Telfer) List C (Canadian Composer)
                Grade 3Shark (Teresa Richart) Study - Teacher’s Own Choice (Canadian Composer) from 'At Sea'
                Grade 4Muskoka Autumn (Frances Balodis) Study - Teacher’s choice (Canadian Composer)
                Grade 5Moonless Night (Richard Faith) List C
                Grade 6Winter Scene (Boris Berlin) List C (Canadian Composer)
                Grade 7Arctic Moon (Wynn-Anne Rossi) List C
                Grade 8Country Sentimental (Christopher Norton) Study - Popular Selection
                Grade 9Monarchs (Martha Duncan) List D (Canadian Composer) from 'Isla Vista Suite'


                KEY #4     MEMORIZE IN SECTIONS

                Don't Practice Until You Get it Right, Practice Until You Can't Get it Wrong. 

                Here's my Theory....there are 3 levels of memory for pieces

                1. You can play it at home, but it is still shaky at your lesson.
                2. You can play it at your lesson, but it is not yet ready for performance.
                3. You can play it for anyone because you know it inside out.
                • Divide pieces into logical sections according to form and phrasing. Label them A, B, C etc.
                • Learn and memorize pieces Hands Separately (HS)  and Hands Together (HT) in sections.
                • Be able to start at any section - RH, LH or HT (Safely nets throughout piece).
                • Keep going in performance….jump to the next section if you must but NEVER go back.
                • Practice 'jumping' while playing....student starts their piece, teacher calls out a section and the student must jump to that section and keep going!
                • See our handy Sight Reading Memory and Performance Cards for lots of great ideas on Memorizing and Performance.

                KEY #5    PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE


                The Importance of Performance Practice

                • Perform each piece at least once in a master class or recital before the exam.
                • Do a video of each piece before the exam. It's a great memory check because it simulates the exam experience.
                • Have a special Exam Master Class about 3 weeks before exams.
                • Have each student perform their pieces, one after the other, as a concert group. There usually isn't time for studies.

                Have a 'Scale-a-Thon' at the end of the's how it works:

                • Each student receives a small plastic bag.
                • You will need the 'Scale Charts' or technique books for each grade and a bowl of M&M’s.
                • Call a student’s name and a scale or triad from their grade.
                • Students take turns running to the piano and playing their technique for each other.
                • If they do it well, they can put an M&M in their bag. The goal is to get as many M&M's as possible.
                • Before the class, students work harder on their technique knowing they are going to be playing them for others.
                • After the class, the younger students work harder to improve because they've heard what the older students can do.

                KEY #6     MAINTENANCE PRACTICE

                Maintaining a Piece is Like Mountain Climbing

                • Students sometimes struggle to keep fast-paced pieces at performance level.
                • Having a piece ready for performance is like making it to the top of the mountain. However,  if you are not careful, it will start to slide down the other side! Jelly Fingers set in!
                • Get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain. What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course....he should be your best friend.
                • Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion.
                • You need to control the can't let the music control you!! 
                • All fast pieces should have a maintenance speed. You can practice it up to speed as well...but only if you have paid the price with slow metronome practice.
                • The fast speed should be a little under the suggested metronome speed. Adrenaline will take care of the rest! If a student has practiced slowly with the metronome, he should be able to control his piece in performance. 

                See my blog post on Maintenance Practice for more ideas.

                KEY #7     ORDER MATTERS

                Plan the Order of the Exam Carefully

                In the RCM exam system, a student is allowed to chose the order of the exam (i.e. doing pieces or technique & studies first, order of studies, order of pieces).

                Here is my preferred order for an exam: 

                • Start with technique. It should be well prepared...I have my students play their technique at the speeds of the next grade.
                • Doing technique first gives them a chance to try the piano, settle into the exam, and warm up their fingers.
                • Studies will be next. They do not NEED to be memorized, but they should be anyway. Having the music as a 'security blanket' will take away the pressure of 'having' to memorize studies. 
                • Choose the order of songs so that they start and end with their strongest pieces. Alternate fast and slow songs for interest and variety.
                • Ear Training and Sight Reading are always done last.

                 KEY #8     MOCK EXAMS WORK

                Mock Exams - An Essential Part of Exam Training

                • Do mock exams on the last 3 lessons before an exam. Students feel much more comfortable with the whole exam process by the third mock.
                • Pretend to be the examiner. Run through the entire exam exactly as it will be done on their exam day.....minimal cordial talking only, have them wait quietly while you write, no comments or feedback from examiner, only written comments. The first time that they experience this can be very unnerving.
                • I use the graded Mock Exam Sheets (for sale on this website). They are fillable PDF files. I can write in them for the mock exam, save them and then e-mail the sheet to the student at the end of the exam. Each Mock Exam Sheet comes with a handy Percentage Calculation Chart.
                • I do give them marks on their mock exam. I explain to them beforehand that I are not their examiner, that this is just one moment in time and that their mark can certainly change on the day of their exam. I usually mark harder than the examiner. I just want to make sure that they are in first-class territory (80%).
                • You can ask your students to print their mock exam sheets and tape them into their Organizer for future reference.

                A practical piano exam is made up of many different components….Technique, Studies, Pieces, Ear Training and Sight Reading. Preparing for a piano exam requires that all of these things peak at the same time. I like to compare an exam to a musical box….we add each of these prepared elements to the box one at a time until the box is full. Then and only then is the student is ready for their exam. Good luck preparing your students for their music exams.

                 ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


                Photo credit: Alice's Door Knob, 7-2012






                Reach for the Stars Darlene Irwin     January 05, 2015

                The holidays are over and life is slowly returning to normal. 

                I’m sure that everyone is anticipating the return to teaching this week. I think that one of the biggest challenges teachers face is trying to keep students motivated and excited about practicing, especially after they have had a break from their normal routine. 

                I have several incentives in my studio to help motivate my students. Some of these have already been outlined in a previous blog post entitled “Stickers, Charts & Rice Krispie Squares—Strategies for Practice Motivation”.

                My students record their weekly practicing on their assignment page in their Student Music Organizer. If they have met their practice goals, then they receive a special Sticker of the Week. They can also put a special sticker on the wall chart in the studio. And I have treat week every 5 weeks.

                All of this helps to keep them on track with their goals. However, I was concerned that they weren’t always focusing on and completing their weekly assignments. And so I came up with a fun program that I called 'Reach for the Stars'.

                This program works especially well with junior students. It’s important to note that it is not mandatory. I give each participating student a 'Reach for the Stars' Information Sheet explaining exactly what I require for each star.  Some of the requirements may not apply to all students. For example, some students may not be yet working on technique. I take all of this into account when assigning stars.

                Here’s how it works: 

                Each week, a student receives a coloured star at the end of their lesson. The colour they receive will depend on how well they have prepared for their lesson (SUPER GOLD, Gold, Silver, Blue or Red). I assign points to each coloured star and keep track of their scores throughout the year using a special 'Reach for the Stars' Tracking Chart. (Click here to download my original Excel file).  I do not share their actual accumulated scores with each other.....this information is kept confidential. However, my students do know exactly what I expect from them each week because I write detailed notes in their Organizers. 

                I usually start this program in October after we’ve had a few lessons together. However, it works just as well starting in January and running until June. The important thing is that they are not competing with each other, but with themselves and how well they have prepared for their lesson each week at their particular level. That way a beginner has equal opportunity to receive a Super Gold Star if they complete their weekly assignments.

                Here are the criteria for each star:

                SUPER GOLD (20 points)

                • A Super Gold star is saved for something amazing.
                • There has been an extra special effort.
                • Something has really impressed me.
                • (Extra theory, pieces memorized, musical playing that gives me goose bumps) 
                • A very organized, musical and well-prepared lesson. 

                Gold (15 points)

                • There has been a Special effort. 
                • ALL assigned pieces are played VERY WELL. Some may be memorized.
                • Playing is excellent and musical
                • Theory is completed and well done.
                • Assigned scales are played well with correct fingering.
                • All required practice time is completed and noted on their chart (see Organizer).

                Silver (12 points)
                • There has been a very good effort, but not quite GOLD.
                • Most assigned pieces are played well.
                • Theory is completed. 
                • Assigned scales are good but still need some work.
                • All required practice time is completed and noted on their chart.

                Blue (10 points)

                • There has been a moderate effort.  
                • Assigned pieces are better but some still need work.
                • Theory is completed or almost completed.
                • Assigned scales have improved but some still need work.
                • Required practice time is completed or is almost completed.
                • 1 point deducted if theory is not completed.

                Red (7 Points)

                • There has been some effort, but there is room for improvement.
                • Most assigned pieces need more work.
                • Theory may not have been completed. 
                • Assigned scales need more work.
                • Required practice may not have been completed.

                I have a very cool Musical Treasure Box in the studio filled with goodies. The Dollar Store is a great place to buy things for the Treasure Box. My Treasure Box was a gift from a looks like a musical book! This gives students an added incentive to try their best each week. Students can pick something from the Musical Treasure box each time they accumulate three gold or super gold stars (they don’t have to be in consecutive weeks).


                At the end of the year I total all of their earned points. I then give Star Awards at the recital in June. First place receives a small trophy. I give ribbons for 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th place. I will give ties if the scores are close. Every student receives a participation ribbon.

                'Reach for the Stars' is a fun way to start the New Year with a fresh and interesting approach. This program helps my students stay motivated. It also helps them gain confidence for upcoming performances and exams. They really try to accomplish what is expected each week. They think about what they are practicing instead of just playing something to fill in time and they strive for perfection in their work. In short, they start to find the music hiding in the notes!

                Have fun trying something new in the New Year…..have fun Reaching for the Stars. 

                ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

                Photo credit: "Star Walkers" by Paul Kline