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 ♥︎

Can you find the Music Hiding in the Notes? Darlene Irwin     April 24, 2014

"Keepsake Mill" from A Child's Garden of Verses by Chee-Hwa Tan.
Poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (published in 1885).
Painting by John Constable

I have told my students many times that lots of people can play the notes but it's much harder to play the music BEHIND the notes. And that's the question that I always ask them.....can you find the MUSIC hiding in the notes?

To explain, I want to tell the story of one of my students....I'll call her Kate. She is 10 years old and in Grade 2 piano. Last month, we were working on a piece called The Keepsake Mill from A Child's Garden of Verses by Chee-Hwa Tan. She was getting the notes, the counting, the fingering....all of the basic elements were there. But the music was missing! So I asked her the same question.....How can you find the music hiding in the notes?

I played it for her 2 ways. First, I played it with the correct notes and timing, but no feeling. Then I played it musically. "I can hear the difference", she said, "But I don't think I can do that!"

"Yes, you can", I said, "but first I have to share some musical secrets with you". I started asking her a few questions and each time, she would try it again:

  • Do you know what a phrase is? It's a musical sentence. Can you identify and play the phrases alone in the right hand? Can you think of words for the phrases? Can you sing the words as you play?
  • Can you breathe after each sentence? Use your arms. Feel as if you are taking a breath with your arms.
  • The left hand is in broken chords.....can you see that? Play the accompaniment alone. Now can you play the left hand in solid chords? Can you name the chords? Can you hear the different colours or harmonies?
  • Can you play the melody alone in the right hand, phrase by phrase?
  • Project the melody. I want beautiful, round, fat notes on top. Send those notes across the room. Ping the notes so that they travel out the window and across the road.
  • Stroke those notes gently like you would stroke a little cat.
  • Kate's idea was to gently roll a basketball over the she was thinking!
  • Now....what is balance? Basically it means that you play the right hand phrases louder than the left hand accompaniment. The right hand is the star and the left hand is the orchestra.
  • First try to shadow the right hand projected melody and only pretend to play the accompaniment? Touch the notes in the left hand but don't depress the keys.
  • Now try playing the accompaniment in the left hand as written along with the projected melody on top.
  • Can you shape the melody (like a rainbow over the water) while projecting the melody over the accompaniment? (I know, I ask for a lot!)

I would play it for her so she could hear the music. Then she would try again. It took several tries and then she said excitedly....."I hear it!! I can hear the difference! I've found the MUSIC!" "That's after just a few minutes of trying". I said. "Imagine how much better it will be after you practice it that way that all week".

She came back for her next lesson and she was very proud of herself. The piece had improved dramatically!

"Now, let's take it a step farther." I said. "Here are some more ideas for finding the music hiding in the notes":

  • What is a Keepsake Mill? Can we find a picture of the keepsake mill?
  • What was the purpose of a mill? What was the purpose of the water wheel? (having a computer or iPad nearby is very handy because you can instantly look up what you need).
  • What did the composer do in the music to paint a picture of the Keepsake Mill?
  • Can you see the wheel turning round and round and round? It never's almost hypnotic. Can you hear it? Can you see the dark water swirling in the pond below? Can you hear it? Can you feel the spray of the water on your face? Can you smell the water and the wood?
  • Now.....have that picture in your mind when you play this piece....make the music come alive....paint the picture with your notes and send it out to your listener.....send it to me and let me see it too!! Play it with balance and phrasing and shaping and FEELING!

There was such a difference. The song was totally different. "I LOVE this song", she said!

Music to my ears!! Kate was no longer just playing the notes. She had unlocked the magic and had found the music hiding in the notes!

♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


by Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the borders, a sin without pardon,
Breaking the branches and crawling below,
Out through the breach in the wall of the garden,
Down by the banks of the river we go.

Here is a mill with the humming of thunder,
Here is the weir with the wonder of foam,
Here is the sluice with the race running under –
Marvelous places, though handy to home!

Sounds of the village grow stiller and stiller,
Stiller the note of the birds on the hill;
Dusty and dim are the eyes of the miller,
Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.

Years may go by, and the wheel in the river
Wheel as it wheels for us, children, to-day,
Wheel and keep roaring and foaming for ever
Long after all of the boys are away.

Home for the Indies and home from the ocean,
Heroes and soldiers we all will come home;
Still we shall find the old mill wheel in motion,
Turning and churning that river to foam.

You with the bean that I gave when we quarreled,
I with your marble of Saturday last,
Honoured and old and all gaily appareled,
Here we shall meet and remember the past. 

Spicing up your Studio with New Repertoire Darlene Irwin     March 17, 2014


Have you ever fallen into the rut of teaching the same old songs to your students. I know that, on occasion, I have had that problem. Another common problem among teachers is that we tend to buy new music and then put it away in our library and forget about it!

This year, I have tried very hard to introduce new material in my teaching. I went through my library and picked out several collections that I thought might be appropriate for the students that I am teaching at this time. I played through these collections and then tagged pieces that I thought students might like. I kept that small pile of books by the piano in the studio. Then, when a student was ready to try a new piece, I tried to match that student with one of these new pieces. I found that when I showed that I was excited to try something different, then the students were willing to try it! Then, after discussing this with the parents, I went to my local music store and ordered several new books for students. They were so excited to get a new book! Several students have chosen some of these works for upcoming performances and exams.

Here are some points to keep in mind when choosing new repertoire for students:

  • Try to avoid giving the same pieces to students in the same grade. Instead, make a point of trying something new and different with each student. It's great for the student but it's also wonderful and challenging for the teacher to try teaching something that you have never taught before. As teachers, we should never stop learning! My students love it when I tell them that I have NEVER taught this piece to any other student!
  • Students feel special that they are playing something that no one else in the studio has played before. They can then share these pieces at upcoming master classes, festivals or recitals. My students love to hear new and different works. Many times I've had other students ask if they could try that song as well!
  • Try some unusual works with a more modern notation. Students respond well to modern works if you, as a teacher, show enthusiasm for these pieces. Some examples would be Olie the Goalie by Stephen Chatman (Pre-Grade 1 level). The entire score is written on a drawing of a goalie with bits of the score under each hockey puck! Or how about trying Night Sounds by Stephen Chatman. Students actually get to meow like a cat, snort like a pig and hoot like an owl!! They even get to improvise one whole section. This piece was a huge hit at our last master class.
  • Support local artists.There are many wonderful composers in Canada and in the United States who are continuing to provide us with interesting and varied works. You could have your student write to their special composer and let them know how much they enjoyed playing their piece. I'm sure that the composers would love to hear from them! The student could also do a little research to find out some information about their composer! Students are always amazed to find out that lots of composers are actually alive and still writing!!
  • Examiners love to hear different pieces as well. Explore whatever syllabus you are using and choose something unusual and unique for their modern piece or for their study. (i.e. the Royal Conservatory of Music allows this as a Teacher's choice for a study). This makes for a much more interesting exam!
  • Students love to play jazzy songs that have a great beat. My students have especially enjoyed pieces from the Connections for Piano by Christopher Norton. There are 8 books in total from Grades 1 to 8. Each song has a downloadable backtrack which makes it even more fun to play! Some suggestions might me Half a Chance (Grade 3), Nefertiti Blues (Grade 7) or Country Sentimental (Grade 8).
  • Make the music come alive by having them write a story or draw a picture. Then have them try to tell their story musically. The younger students especially enjoy doing this. This works especially well for pieces like Starfish at night, Cobwebs, Summer Lightning, March of the Terrible Trolls or Icky Spider. There are extra pages in the back of the Student Music Organizer that could be used for this.

Here is a list of some of the varied and fun pieces that my students have tried over the past couple of years:

Early Elementary


    Late Elementary/ Early Intermediate

    Intermediate/Early Advanced

    Have fun teaching some different and interesting material. Your students will thank you and you will enjoy teaching something new and fresh.

    Please feel free to share any new, interesting and different pieces that your students have enjoyed learning. We would love to hear from you.