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 ♥︎

    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 ♥︎

    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

    Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.....Recital Darlene Irwin     December 01, 2014

    It's December and preparations for Christmas are in full swing.

    Last Friday evening, I held my annual Christmas Piano Recital/Musical Party. My students look forward to this event all year long. They started picking their pieces months ago. I have a rule that once you pick a piece it's one else can play it. One student has already picked her piece for next year.....The Bell Carol is certainly one of the most popular selections! They don't have to choose a Christmas song, but most of them did. One student decided to play Sonatina in G+ by Clementi. We both felt that this was a great opportunity for him to test his memory for an upcoming Grade 8 exam. (I did think of calling it The Christmas Sonatina…..maybe not!)  

    The recital was a huge success. All students were in attendance and everyone had a great time. Some used their music, some took the music up and didn’t even look at it and some felt brave enough to play from memory. The most important thing is that they were excited to share their music with each other. 

    This was certainly the case with my youngest student. She could hardly wait to play Jingle Bells with me. She has only had 11 lessons, but she already plays with confidence and she loved having the bells on her arm.


    I'd like to share my six secrets for planning the best Christmas recital ever:

    Be organized

    I use an Excel sheet called 'Christmas Recital Planning Charts' to organize and prepare for my recital. The file contains several worksheets including the Initial Planning Chart, a Program Planning Chart, the Final Program Planning Chart and a Refreshment Sign-up Chart. I use the Initial Planning Chart to time the pieces before I put the program together.

    I find it works well to have the students sitting together at the front of the hall. It helps to have numbers on the students' seats. That way, the students know where to sit and what order they play in. This facilitates the flow of the program. 

    Shorter is Better

    Time the recital pieces! Parents and students will get restless if the program is too long. I find that 60-75 minutes works best…I call this a 'Father Friendly' recital. If you have lots of students, you could hold two separate events (Junior and Senior). My Christmas recital last Friday started at 7:00 and was over by 8:00.


    Be Prepared

    Make sure the students have 6-8 weeks to work on their pieces. Some students are able to get their songs up quickly...that's great. We can put those pieces on a shelf and work on something else in the meantime. However, most students require more time to feel comfortable performing in front of an audience. It's important that they also prepare mentally for their performance. They are not allowed to say the word nervous….instead I tell them that they are 'excited'…it’s a whole different feeling.

    The Three Levels of Memory

    This leads to my next point....pieces should be memorized. I don't require them to play from memory at the recital unless they feel at ease doing so. However, they will play so much better if their piece is memorized.

    I have a theory about memory and performing. (My students know that I always have a theory about something!)

    My theory is that there are three levels of memory. 

    Level 1: The first level is if you can play it at home, but not for me. 

    Level 2: You can play it for me but it is still not really ready for a performance.

    Level 3: You can play it for anyone. Your piece is memorized in sections and you have many safety nets all the way through. I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this  - "Don’t practice until you can play it right. Practice until you can’t play it wrong!"

    One of my students played Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky. We discussed the fact that it was written for the celesta. That led to the idea of performing it on her keyboard, which has a cool celesta setting. 



    Variety is the Spice of Life

    Make sure that you have lots of variety. I love finding new and different arrangements of familiar songs. I place special numbers throughout the program and I list them in darker print on the program. This helps to keep the program interesting. Some of my students play other instruments as well. Last Friday, we had additional special performances with harp and voice, accordion, several duets and a fun keyboard piece. Here is an excerpt of What Child is This. The singer is a piano student who has never had formal training. She has a naturally beautiful voice that blended so well with the harp.


    Make it Fun

    Above all, the recital/musical party should be FUN. My students wouldn't miss is one of the highlights of our musical year. It is so important that this be a positive, enriching experience for them. Each Christmas, I make the traditional Piano Cake which is reserved just for them. After the recital, we had an informal social time with the parents supplying the rest of the refreshments. This also gave me a change to mingle, visit with their families and take pictures.

    At their lesson this week I will ask my students what they liked the best about the recital….something other than the food! I know that they will be excited to share their favourite moments. We might even pick their piece for next year. 

    This Christmas season, my wish for all my students is that they develop a deep love of music in all its beauty and variety, that they learn to play this instrument we call the piano, that they learn to sight read well, that they gain self-confidence as they perform and that they continue to play, enjoy and share this wonderful gift of music throughout their life.

    ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

    Discovering Musical Gems Darlene Irwin     November 10, 2014

    One of the biggest challenges for a teacher can be finding appropriate pieces that students love to play! I’m always looking for interesting, well written music that captures their imagination but also contains sound pedagogical ideas. Finding such a piece is like finding a hidden treasure.

    These past few weeks my students have been busy preparing for their first master class and for the Christmas recital. I teach many different levels, ranging from beginners to advanced. Several students are working towards specific goals such as recitals, exams or evaluations.

    We currently live in a rural area and all of my students celebrate Christmas. Because of that, most of them have picked a Christmas song for the recital. However, this was not always the case. When I lived in a large city, I had a more multi-cultural program, reflecting the various ethnic backgrounds of my students.

    Master classes and recitals are great because students have an opportunity to share their musical gems with others while building confidence at the same time. It’s important to broaden their musical horizons by having them experience all different styles and types of music, from the Classics to Modern to Pop and Jazz. It's also important that we, as teachers, avoid getting stuck in a ‘musical rut’ by always teaching the same material. 

    Every year I try to find something new and fresh to share with my students. It makes them feel special because they are playing something unique. They especially enjoy descriptive pieces that paint vivid musical picture.

    Regular Pieces

    Here are some of the wonderful musical gems that my students have worked on this fall. A few are regular graded pieces, others are Christmas songs, some are pieces that I have taught before and some I am teaching for the first time. 

    Elementary (Pre-Grade 1 - Grade 2)


    Starfish At N
    ight (Anne Crosby) from 'Freddie the Frog'
    -  very simple and yet very beautiful 
    -  have students write a story and draw a picture
    -  great piece to introduce descriptive playing to a younger student

    Pagodas in the Purple Mist (Faber & Faber) from 'Piano Adventures Performance' 2B
    great piece for teaching the pentatonic scale
    -  I played the duet with my student while her sisters improvised on a xylophone

    To Fly Like an Eagle (Anne Crosby) from 'Freddie the Frog'
    -  evokes picture of a magnificent eagle soaring high above the majestic mountains
    -  patterns, counting, pedal, phrasing

    The Wind (Chee-Hwa Tan) from 'A Child's Garden of Verses'
    - another wonderfully descriptive piece
    - broken triads, smooth peddling between hands, dynamic contrasts
    - can you imitate the wind as it ebbs and flows? Think of a windy, stormy winter night!
    - one of my favourite books, based on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson

    Intermediate (Grade 3 - 5)

    The Stormy Sea (Anne Crosby) from 'In My Dreams'
    -  very dramatic piece, fun to play
    -  alternating arpeggios, peddling, dynamic changes, 6/8 time

    Bedbug Blues (Christopher Norton) from 'Connections' level 4
    -  can play with a cool, jazzy audio track (download on the Connections website)
    - the password to obtain the audio track is on the inside cover of the book
    -  imagine the lazy bedbugs laying around waiting for their next meal!!
    - teaches counting and rhythm (swung eighths), listening and staying with the beat

    Blue Iris (Teresa Richert) from 'Petals for Piano' (scroll down page on Teresa's website)
    - click here to listen to this piece (from the website)
    - all pieces based on provincial flowers of Canada
    - Blue Iris is the flower of Quebec
    - can you visualize a field of beautiful flowers moving gently in the breeze?
    - left hand ostinato, melodic projection, fluid flowing lines
    - check out Red Leaf Pianoworks for more exciting new piano repertoire

    Intermediate/Early Advanced (Grades 6 - 8)

    - very descriptive piece with modern notation
    - always a student favourite
    - many changes of dynamics and mood
    -  dream-like story about a castle, bats and wolves in the dark mist

    The Irish Washerwoman (arr. by Phillip Keveren) from 'The Celtic Collection'
    - great collection of clever and creative arrangements of Irish folk tunes
    - fun but challenging piece in 6/8 time
    - lots of clef, tempo and key changes, very rhythmic and lively

    Star Gazing (Alexina Louie) from 'Star Light, Star Bright'
    -  Grade 8 exam piece (RCM Syllabus), uses some modern notation
    -  chord clusters and rapid repeated notes to create a shimmering effect
    -  lots of dynamic changes and patterns
    -  very ethereal, beautiful sound picture

    Christmas Arrangements

    My students love playing creative arrangements of familiar tunes.
    These types of arrangements can sometimes be challenging to find, but they are well worth learning.

    Elementary (Pre-Grade 1 - Grade 2)

    Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Faber & Faber) from 'Piano Adventures Christmas' 3A
    - easy arrangement of a classic song by Tchaikovsky
    - relay the history of the piece and explain the use of the celesta

    Mary Did you Know? (arr. Dennis Alexander) from 'Christmas Hits'
    - Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course level 2 
    - beautiful arrangement of this song
    - gentle syncopation, chord patterns, melodic projection and balance

    Intermediate (Grade 3 - 5)

    Away in the Manger (arr. Jerry Ray) from 'Simply Christmas'
    - this book contains lots of beautifully simple and elegant arrangements
    - clever use of Brahms' Lullaby throughout
    - balance, phrasing and rubato

    Go Tell it on the Mountain (arr. Martha Mier) from 'Christmas Jazz, Rags and Blues' book 2
    - well-written fun, jazzy arrangements of Christmas favourites
    - syncopated rhythms and jazz harmonies

    O Little Town of Bethlehem (arr Melody Bober) from 'Christmas Encores' book 1
    - beautiful, inspiring and interesting arrangements
    -book 2 is also a favourite
    - gentle syncopation, melodic projection, tricky scale passages

    Intermediate/Early Advanced (Grades 6 - 8)

    We Three Kings in the style of Liszt (arr. Carol Klose) from 'Bach Around the Christmas Tree'
    - classic carols written in the styles of some of the great composers
    - creative, fun way to introduce styles and time periods of different composers
    - second volume is called 'More Bach Around the Christmas Tree'

    The First Noel (arr. Phillip Keveren) from 'A Celtic Christmas'
    - this book is truly a hidden gem
    - wonderful arrangements of familiar and not-so-familiar carols
    - fresh approach using Celtic rhythms and colour

    I Saw Three Ships (arr. Phillip Keveren) from 'A Celtic Christmas'
    - fun romp in 6/8 time
    - changes of time and key signatures

    Duets - Early & Late Intermediate

    Silent Night (arr. Melody Bober) from 'Christmas Memories for Two' book 1

    O Come All Ye Faithful (arr. Melody Bober) from 'Christmas Memories for Two' book 1

    Angels from the Realms of Glory (arr. Melody Bober) from 'Christmas Memories for Two'  Book 3
    - 3 wonderful volumes in this series
    - lovely arrangements, great for recital programs

    Our first master class of this year was a HUGE success. Everyone loved sharing their special songs and hearing new and interesting pieces. After each performance, I asked them what they liked about the piece. Here are some of their varied and insightful comments....I loved the dreaminess of that piece, I closed my eyes and imagined that I was flying over the mountains, I loved the sounds of the different chords, I could clearly hear 2 voices in the right hand, it sounded very dramatic, the balance was GREAT, I LOVED the story!

    Don’t be afraid to try something different. My students love playing imaginative and descriptive pieces. They also enjoy playing creative arrangements of old favourites. Have fun exploring some of these musical gems with your students. 

    **Feel free to share your Musical Gems in the comments below.**

    ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

    The Colours of Music Darlene Irwin     October 20, 2014

    ”Music is written in black and white…..all you have to do is add the colours!”  

    There are many different ways to describe colour in music—dynamics, volume, expression, louds and softs, subtle shades of light and dark.

    Colour adds interest and beauty to music. Without it, music would be boring. It’s how the composer and the performer convey the message, meaning and emotion of the music to the listener. It's such an important part of a performance.....I call it the icing on the cake. Unfortunately for our students, it also tends to be the first thing that disappears when they are under pressure. Nerves have a way of erasing the colours! So how do you teach your students to remember the colours when they are performing? 

    Many years ago, I heard an adjudicator at a festival class describe music as a black and white colouring book. She told the students that it is up to them to add the colours for their audience.

    At that point, I had a brainwave....I love it when that happens!!! In order for students to remember the colours they need to SEE them! And so I came up with a colour code for music. My theory was that if they saw the same colours over and over again, they would be more likely to play the dynamics correctly. Their brain would eventually begin to associate specific colours with the corresponding dynamic markings. I used highlighters so that the colours would jump off the page!

    Here are the colours that I use with my students with the pedagogical reasons behind them:

    • PINK for forte (loud) and crescendo (getting louder). It is a very bright colour and it indicates a loud sound.
    • YELLOW for piano (soft) and decrescendo (getting softer). It is a much softer, less intense colour for a quiet sound.
    • PINK with a YELLOW ring around it for mezzo forte (medium loud) because it is softer than forte.
    • YELLOW with a PINK ring for mezzo piano (medium soft) because it is louder than piano.
    • PINK with an ORANGE ring around it is for fortissimo (very loud). Orange is a very bright colour and so it reminds them to play louder than forte.
    • YELLOW with a BLUE ring around it for pianissimo (very soft) because blue is much softer colour. The BLUE colour tells them to play softer than piano.
    • GREEN is used for all the other markings on the page - accents, tenutos, any Italian terms, repeat dots, octave higher or lower, etc. Green can also be used for pedal markings if needed. I often tell my students that a sneaky little tenuto can hide on the page until it is coloured!
    • PURPLE is not included in the chart below because I rarely use it. It can be used occasionally for showing stem directions, especially if the piece is written in one clef but played with both hands. It can also be used to colour slurs or staccatos, if students are having trouble remember them. However, I don’t usually colour all slurs or staccatos because it gets too confusing. There is just too much colour on the page. PURPLE can also be used to colour one of the voices of a Fugue.

    When introducing a new song to a student, the first thing we do is colour the piece. As the student colours, we talk about everything on the page. That way, I know that they understand all the markings before we begin learning the piece. When the dynamics are coloured, students are also able to spot patterns in the music (sequences, echoes, terraced dynamics etc). This helps when they are memorizing their piece.....they can visualize the colours as they play.

    Here is an example of a simple piece that has been coloured. This is a Grade 2 piece called Gavotta in G+ by James Hook. Can you find the dynamic echoes?


    Here's a more complicated piece - Sonatina in G+ by Diabelli (Page 1 and Page 2). Having the accents or tenutos coloured green is helpful because they are quite often the destination notes in the phrase. This can then lead to a discussion about melodic shaping.


    Colouring can be used effectively with senior students as well. Here is an example of how I would colour the Fugue in E+ (J.S. Bach). Notice how each voice has been coloured differently so that the student knows exactly where the lines are. I have also used arrows to show where the voice entries are. (NOTE—Arrows will be discussed in a future blog post).

    I have coloured music with my students for many years and I have used this technique with students of all levels. It has been a wonderful tool for helping them to perform their best. 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.

    Colouring a piece is such a fun activity to do at the lesson. My students have often told me that a piece doesn’t look ‘worked on’ if it’s not coloured!  Have fun colouring with your students!!

    ♥︎ Remember.....Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎

    Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Sunrise (Canmore, AB) by Peter Eggers


    Setting Musical Goals—The First Step to Success Darlene Irwin     September 21, 2014

    "A goal is a dream with a deadline."

    This is a quote from the early 20th century American author Napoleon Hill. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers on how to be successful in life. Another of his hallmark expressions was, "Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve."

    The beginning of the piano year is an ideal time to talk to our students about musical goals. It’s important that the teacher knows what the student would like to accomplish in the year ahead. The student also needs to know what the teacher believes they can achieve. 

    Here are some simple goal-setting strategies that you can use with your students:

    • always take a few minutes at the first lesson to discuss and record each student's goals. This gives me the opportunity to suggest an appropriate amount of practice time per week. Even beginners can have musical goals. For them, it can be something as simple as 'This year I’m going to love music!' On the Forbes website it states, "Creating clear and measurable goals and writing them down is the key to success."
    • Communication between parents, students and teacher is very important. Make sure that the parents have the same expectations as the students. Problems can arise when the goals of the parents are too difficult for the student. You may need to speak to the parent alone to express these concerns and come to a compromise. 
    • Goals for more advanced students might include finishing a level or grade (practical or theory), doing an exam or taking part in a competition. If students don’t want to do exams, then their goals could be to improve their sight reading by completing a certain number of classical or popular pieces. It helps to be specific. For example, a good goal might be to learn a number of scales or pieces by a certain date.
    • Musical goals will depend upon the students' abilities and also on how much time they can devote to practice. It’s important that their goals be achievable so they don’t get discouraged.
    • Having said that, sometimes I've had students set a goal that I thought was too difficult. I try to support them and so we discuss the practice time required to reach their goal. For example, last year I had a student who was working at a Grade 3 level. My goal for her was to do a grade 3 exam. However, she expressed a strong desire to complete Grade 4 by the end of the year. We adjusted her practice time and came up with strategies to accomplish this. She worked very hard and did complete her grade 4 with an excellent mark. 
    • Once we have set some attainable goals for the year, then we discuss how much time they will need to practice each week to attain those goals. Students are juggling many things—school, sports, their social life, family commitments and other activities. The list is endless!! I usually write 3 different daily scenarios on the practice page at the front of the Student Music Organizer....for example: good (30 minutes), better (35 minutes) and best (40 minutes). The length of time will depend on their grade and their goals. Once we have decided on their practice time, I require that they practice that amount 6 days a week...they can have one day off! We then break the time down even further.  (i.e. 5 minutes for Sight Reading, 10 minutes for Technique and 15 minutes for pieces).

    • Review the student's goals throughout the year. This helps to ensure that they are still on track. You may have to adjust the goals from time to time depending on the progress of the student. 
    • There is such a great feeling of accomplishment when students are able to reach their musical goals. A Musical Report card is a wonderfully positive way to finish the year. I always list goals that have been completed. I also recognize students at the year-end recital who have completed all of their practicing for the year. I call them my “Perfect Practicers” (see blog post entitled It's June - Musical Report Cards and a Fond Farewell).
    •  'The Student Music Organizer' has a special spot on page 2 at the front of the book for listing musical goals. This makes it very easy to review these goals regularly throughout the year. This page also includes a place to keep track of favourite repertoire and a section for exam planning. On page 3, there is a very handy place for planning and organizing the student's practice time.  

    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 for the student. Remember - The First Step to Reaching your Goals is Believing You Can Get There.

     ♥︎ Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎ 


    Photo credit:


    Who Lives in the Doghouse? Darlene Irwin     September 07, 2014

    It's September...time for music lessons to start again. I'm sure that many of us have new students who are just starting piano lessons. It's so important that their first lesson be a very positive and enjoyable experience. I'd like to share with you a fun game that I play at their first piano lesson. My younger students really enjoy this activity and they are learning so much while they are having fun. I call this game "Who Lives in the Doghouse?"

    Here's how it works:

    • Using the right hand, have the student tuck their thumb, 4th and 5th fingers together so that you only have fingers 2 and 3 showing (like 2 stork legs)!
    • Have them play all the '2-black keys' on the piano with fingers 2 and 3. Start on the right side of the piano and go to the left.
    • As they play, ask them what they notice about the sound (the notes start high and get lower and lower). Remind them to drop the arm weight forward into the keys as they play so they make a nice sound.
    • When they have finished playing the 2-black keys, have them tuck the thumb and 5th finger behind fingers 2,3 and 4 on the left hand and have them use those fingers to play all the '3-black keys', starting on the left side of the keyboard and going to the right. Again, have them listen to the sounds of the notes and tell you what they notice.
    • The next step is to make 7 ‘doghouses’! They especially love this part! Take 7 various coloured 3x5" file cards and folding them in half. I have the student decorate these with dog stickers. Place a doghouse over each of the '2-black keys’ on the keyboard.

    • At this point, I ask the question…."Who lives in the doghouse?” And they answer - "The dog, of course!!"
    • I then tell them that the white key between the 2-black keys is called a D.....D for Dog!
    • In the right hand, have them place their thumb behind the first joint of the 3rd finger and play all the 'Dogs' on the piano. Start with the low, grouchy dogs and play up to the high dogs!
    • The thumb behind the 3rd finger helps to support the joint so that it doesn’t collapse. It also gives a nice, rounded hand position and helps them to feel the arm weight drop into the keys. Take care that they don’t raise the 5th finger as they play.
    • Next I ask ”OK….what note comes BEFORE D in the alphabet?"  They usually have to think about this one for a bit!!
    • Finally they say C. I tell them that the note to the left of D is the Cat (C)! He lives under the dog house because the dog won't let him inside!! Have them play all the Cat's on the keyboard.
    • "Now...what note comes AFTER D”? “That’s easy….E!” “E is for Elephant. He won't fit inside the doghouse, so he lives on top of it!!” Have them play all the E's on the piano.
    • You can alternate between starting high or starting low on the piano.
    • I call the "3-Black keys" the big house! “What note comes before C?” “B is for Boy. The boy lives on the roof of the big house because he feeds the cat!”
    • The rest of the game goes like this.....Father (F) went to Africa and came back with an elephant! He lives in the basement of the big house so he can feed the elephant!
    • The Grandma (G) lives downstairs in the big house because she doesn’t like the stairs. However, the Aunt (A) lives upstairs.
    • I usually embellish the story as we go along! They like to add to the story as well. Students also love to ‘practice’ their doghouses at home!

    My beginner student came for her second lesson this morning. Her mother said that she absolutely LOVED the doghouses! She had placed cat stickers on the back side of the cards. When I asked her why, she said "Because the cat lives beside the doghouse!" 

    I play this game with my students for several lessons until they have a solid knowledge of the keys on the piano. My older students tell me they still remember their first piano lesson when we played this game! It’s a great way to make the first lesson special. Have fun making doghouses!

    ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎




    Organize for Success—Getting Ready for Fall Darlene Irwin     July 28, 2014

    Summer is a great time to relax and enjoy the nice weather. But for music teachers, summer is also the time to prepare for the fall. There is always so much to do before regular lessons resume. Organization is the key to having a well-run business. With a little planning ahead of time, you can sail into September knowing that everything is ready to go! That way you will spend less time worrying about all the things that you have to do and more time enjoying the time off. I would like to share with you a few great organizational ideas that have worked for me.

    • One of the first things that I do when preparing for the upcoming season is to work on my Yearly Studio Calendar. I have an Excel chart that I use to generate a one-page Calendar for parents and students. I can use the same chart each year. I just change the dates and add all the important information that I feel my students and parents need to know for the whole year (i.e. master classes, recitals, festivals, holidays, deadlines, exams, upcoming events, vacations, etc).  In late August, I e-mail this to all of my parents along with a reminder of their first lesson date and time. 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 I can refer to it at their lesson throughout the year and highlight any upcoming dates. I've included a link to my original file for the Yearly Studio Calendar in this post. That way, you can download it and change the information to suit your own teaching year.
    • The iPad is an amazing tool. For me, it was definitely worth the investment. (See previous Blog Post called 'The iPad and the Music Teacher'). The Calendar App is one of the best studio organization tools on the iPad. I love how it backs up automatically to the cloud so that I don’t have to worry about losing my information. Entries can be colour coded to keep track of lessons that have been changed or missed. You can also write notes pertaining to a lesson directly on the  individual entires. The search function is fantastic. In an instant, I can see all of the lessons for one particular student for the entire year. I also find the Contacts App very useful for keeping track of all student information. My iPad has revolutionized the way that I organize my business. Here's a link to help you get started. This article will help you with the basics of using the calendar App.
    • I have a very handy ‘Performance Tracking Chart’ (Excel File) that I use to organize all student performances throughout the year. Once I’ve completed my yearly calendar, I set up this chart with student's names and dates of all master classes, recitals and other performances. Then I print it and put it on a clip board that I keep beside me in the studio. I can use this chart for performance planning throughout the year. In September, the first thing we do is pick a Master Class piece (for the end of October) and a Christmas recital piece. I will also use this to help plan performances for exam preparation. I can keep track of all performance pieces for all students throughout the year on these sheets. I find it easier to work with a paper copy in the studio. I can fill it in as I’m teaching. Every two weeks or so, I will update the chart on the computer with any changes or additions and print it again. This gives me a running list of all performance pieces being worked on by my students at all times. I also list the students' pieces in their own Organizer. There is a column in the chart for keeping track of the total playing time for pieces which is useful for timing recitals and Master Classes. Here is the original file of my ‘Performance Tracking Chart’. This will allow you to input the names, dates and events to suit your own studio.
    • The Student Music Organizer is another great time-saving teaching tool. Each September, my students start a brand new book. The book is written on 8 1/2 x 11” paper so there is lots of room for writing notes. It is is designed to last for an entire year of lessons so you don't have to buy 2 or 3 smaller notebooks. At the end of the year, you will have a complete record of what has been done for the entire year. Parents love it as well. If they have a question, I can tell them to check the Organizer! Here are some of the sections included in this great resource: 
        • Goal Setting Section — I do this on the first lesson so that we know how to plan for the year.
        • Favourite Piece Section — This is very helpful when planning recitals, festivals or exams.
        • Exam Planning — for students doing an exam in the upcoming year, we start planning right away.
        • Practice Planning — after we have set goals for the year, we then decide together how much time they will need to practice each week to attain these goals. This time can then be broken down into smaller sections so they know how long to spend on each aspect i.e. pieces, technique, sight reading
        • The Organizer contains 35 Assignment Pages. These sheets can be filled out during the lesson. Each page contains a chart for recording weekly practice. There is also manuscript across the bottom and the pages are numbered so you can refer back to a scale or exercise assigned earlier in the year.
        • The back of the book contains lots and lots of valuable reference material. You will find extra manuscript paper, a composer chart, summary sheets for musical time periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionism and Modern), music dictionaries, basic music theory reference guides and a wonderful comparative fingering chart for keyboard instruments.


        • ♫ A SPECIAL NOTE ♫…The Student Music Organizer Website is having a fantastic 15/15 sale! For the entire month of August, teachers will receive 15% off of their entire order if they order 15 organizers or more. Use the discount code AUGUST at checkout to take advantage of this terrific deal. 

    Have a great rest-of-the summer AND have fun getting organized for September.

    ♥︎ Remember, Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎ 

    ♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


    Photo credit: "Over the River and Through the Woods" by garlandcannon

    Acronyms or Hitching Posts—Note Reading Simplified Darlene Irwin     July 14, 2014

    All Cows Eat Grass.....this is one of the many popular sentences used to teach note reading on the grand staff. But is this the most effective way for students to become the best sight readers? 

    Sight-reading is a key. It can open the door to the amazing world of music. To be a good sight reader, a student must first learn how to read the notes. It is important to remember that music is a language. When a child is first learning to read a language, they have to start by learning the alphabet. Then they learn how to read words, sentences and eventually books, using those letters. It is the same for music and it takes a good deal of time and effort.

    Sight-reading is a gift. I often tell my students that sight reading is probably one of the greatest gifts that I can give to them. My hope for my students is that they will continue to play the piano long after they have finished taking lessons. Many times I have heard adults regretfully admit that they took lessons when they were young but can no longer play. 

    Sight-reading is a skill. Acquiring this skill begins with the very first lesson. Here are a few ideas and strategies that have worked for me as I train my students to be the best sight readers they can be.

    • Start note reading at the very first lesson. I prefer to teach the actual notes rather than having students read general positions on the staff and then switching them to the actual notes later on. 
    • There are two main methods that I have used for teaching note reading. The first method is to use acronyms and words (mnemonics) to memorize where the notes are on the Grand Staff. The spaces on the Treble Staff spell 'FACE' and the lines are 'Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (Fun)’ or 'Empty Garbage Before Dad Freaks'. The Bass Staff spaces are 'All Cows Eat Grass' and the lines are 'Good Boys Deserve Fudge (Fun) Always’ or ‘Great Big Dogs Find Animals’. You can also make up your own acronyms. Students generally learn to read quite quickly using this method. However, my experience has been that they can become dependent on these short cuts. It takes much longer to be able to read the notes without saying the sentences, especially in the bass clef. I use this method if the students are not able to learn any other way.

    • My preferred method is sometimes called The Symmetrical 'C' Approach. I find that this method takes longer but achieves better results in the end. The Symmetrical 'C' Approach uses landmark notes throughout the Grand Staff. I call them Hitching Posts. Have students memorize these notes right away. This gives the students something to 'hang on to'. Once they have their Hitching Posts memorized, they can figure out other notes around them.

    • The Grand Staff is like a Mirror. Have them memorize the position of Middle C in the middle of both staves. This is the first Hitching Post. I tell my students that the staff is also like a have to be able to read the notes forwards going up and backwards going down. Have them say the letters ABCDEFG as fast as they can. Then try saying the letters backwards just as quickly...GFEDCBA! Students love trying to see how quickly they can say the letters backwards!
    • After Middle C, I teach the Hitching Posts G and F. In the Treble Staff, G is two lines up from 'Middle C’. The Treble Clef can also be called a 'G Clef' because G is in the middle of the large swirl. And if you stretch your imagination, the treble clef kind of looks like a cursive G. In the Bass Staff, F is 2 lines down from ‘Middle C’. The Bass Clef is also called an 'F Clef'. The big dot of the Bass Clef sits on this F and the two smaller dots are in the spaces on either side of it. If you really stretch your imagination and add two small lines from the small dots back to the bass clef, it kind of looks like an F!  
    • When I feel that the students are ready, I teach that the next Hitching Posts are 'Treble C' (3 spaces up from Middle C) and 'Bass C' (3 spaces down from Middle C). Students can memorize these notes, then figure the notes out around them. 

    • Later on, you can teach that 'High C' (2 ledger lines above the Treble Staff) and 'Low C' (2 ledger lines below the Bass Staff) are also Hitching Posts. Having these notes memorized helps students read ledger lines.
    • Each Assignment Page in The Student Music Organizer has manuscript across the bottom. For beginner students, every week I write notes on the Grand Staff for them name. I use this to review the all the notes they have learned so far. This becomes part of their theory assignment each week and I will continue to give them notes until they know them fluently. Another great idea is to have them play the notes with their thumb behind their middle finger (RH or LH) while naming the notes out loud. They can do this all week as part of their practice and then add the letter names on the page just before the lesson.
    • Flash Cards can be a very effective tool for students who are just learning to read notes. Have them practice the flash cards at home with a parent or sibling.
    • There are Reference Charts for both note reading methods on page 6 of The Student Music Organizer. These Handy Note Readers are also available on small, two-sided or in 8 1/2 x 11 format for teachers to use in the studio.

    I have the students start in 3 or 4 beginner books and I use the Dozen a Day books as well. I want them to read lots and lots of music....I call it 'eating music'. The more they read, the quicker they will learn to sight-read. Here are some of the beginner resources that I have used successfully:

    1. Music Flash Cards (Jane Smisor Bastien) or Music Flash Cards - Set A (Hal Leonard)
    2. A Dozen a Day - Mini Book, A Dozen a Day - Preparatory Book (Edna May Burnam)
    3. Easiest Piano Course Part One (John Thompson) I like this book because there are no finger numbers.
    4. Teaching Little Fingers to Play (John Thompson)
    5. Teaching Little Fingers to Play Disney Tunes (John Thompson)
    6. The Leila Fletcher Piano Course - Book One (Leila Fletcher)
    7. Progressive Piano Method for Young Beginners - Book 1 (Gary Turner & Andrew Scott). This book has a wonderful accompaniment CD that can be used at the very first lesson. It also teaches the right hand first and then the left hand in C position.
    8. Leila Fletcher's Music Lessons Have Begun (Leila Fletcher)
    9. Piano Adventures - Book 1: Lesson Book. You can also use the Technique & Artistry, Performance, Popular and Gold Star Performance. I find that these books work well after students have completed the initial beginner books. 

    If you have any favourite beginner books that you use, please feel free to share these in the comments below.

     Sight-reading is a skill that takes time to acquire. But it is well worth the effort.

    ♥︎ Remember.....Great Music Comes from the Heart ♥︎


    Photo Credit: denisbin