Finding the perfect words to express what you mean and make the concept understandable to young students can be a challenge. When we finally figure out how to express our ideas, we tend to repeat these phrases over and over again.

I have been enhancing my students perfomances with dynamics (p, mp, mf, f) for many years.  I have accomplished this with two strategies:

1) Define Terms – I teach students to pronounce the terms and defined them.

1) Demonstrate – I play examples and explain the terms. Mezzo Forte (mf) is easy. You don’t need to work hard to play soft or to play loud. Mezzo Piano (mp) and Forte (f) are more challenging because they require extra effort. Piano (p) requires the most effort.

Nothing special here. It has worked well enough, but it was difficult to achieve artistry-level performances with grade school students… until now.

For the past 5-6 years I’ve been taking art lessons, and decided to see if a connection between art and music might help my music students play their music in a much more expressive way.

I introduced value.

Value refers to the visible lightness or darkness of a color, and is one of the most important design elements in a work of art.

So, how does this relate to music?

The following chart shows the four most common dynamic levels and assigns a value to each of them.


I found that drawing a box above a section of the music, and shading it with the appropriate value, gave students a visual indication of how loud or soft the phrase should be played. A light turned on for my students and it transformed their performances.

In some instances, you might draw a box above a four measure phrase and that will be enough. Other pieces are so well written, and your students so capable, that you might want to dig a little deeper -adding value boxes above individual notes.





Most kids won’t grow up to be music composers. However, the opportunity to compose or arrange music shouldn’t be overlooked as it will bring a richness of understanding to their musical experience that you just can’t get any other way.

I started writing and arranging music is high school, and my band director had the jazz and concert band read every single thing I wrote. I learned how to building chords, writing counterpoint, and orchestration. All these experiences made me a better listener and helped me to appreciate the music I played.

If you’d like to try composing with your students, but don’t know where to start, you can print this book – Composing with Kids | Fives “Recipes” for Success. Each “recipe” includes ingredients (like “use this ostinato”, “this form”, or “these rhythms”) and directions on how to combine them. If it sounds a lot like baking cookies… it is!

Composing with Kids | Fives “Recipes” for Success


Music Notation Apps

Seeing your music printed from a professional notation tool is an amazingly satisfying thing. I recently asked one of my students to give Finale Print Music a try, so she download the 30-day free trial. She loved it! One of the big advantages of writing things out with a notation program is that students get to hear a digital performance. Finale’s Human Playback feature is pretty nice. It still sounds like an electronic piano, but sounds very much like a real person is playing.

Noteflight is a web-based app that can be used on you iPad or Desktop. They offer a “try before you buy” account, so you can check things out first.  Noteflight is supportive to teachers and students and includes many materials and lesson plans for download.

Finale Print Music
Finale Print Music is a basic version of Make Music’s Finale software. They also offer a “try before you buy” account, so you can check things out first. I began writing arrangements with Print Music and liked it. It’s a wonderful tool that allows you to write simple piano arrangements, or music for full band or orchestra. The only reason I upgraded was so I could switch clefs mid-measure.

If the experienced teacher is the best teacher, Olive Haffner might just be the best teacher on the planet.


Olive says she loves teaching, and say’s it’s alot like reading the Bible, she’s always discovering something new.

Olive started teaching music lessons during the depression for .25 a lesson. These days she’s teaching the fourth generation of students, as her first students have sent their kids, their kids sent their kids, and their kids sent their kids.

Happy Birthday Olive!


The Piano Bench Mag (iOS App) is an easy-to-read app that offers practical ideas for piano teachers that would like to integrate iPad technology or online teaching into their music lessons. The app also provides tips for teachers who could use some help understanding the technology.


App Description
The Piano Bench Mag recommended for piano instructors that are looking for exciting new resources and ideas that inspire them to make their lessons more engaging, relevant and profitable. Each issue includes:

1) App reviews, games and activities or how-tos to enhance your lessons and simplify your life;
2) Inspiring stories about piano teachers and the resources they have created;
3) Thought provoking articles about the issues that face today’s piano teacher and more!

Visit the Apple App Store | The Piano Bench Mag



Ever offered group piano lessons?

Pianist and composer Matthew Mason recently open his piano store, Pianicity, and has been offering group piano lessons to great success. Students, out of a desire to perform well in front of their peers, are meeting challenges and growing rapidly as young musicians.

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Mason says:

“Our lessons are taught in classes of two to eight students,” Mason said. “We have a system of prizes where students are judged according to how well they’re doing as far as rhythm, notes, playing with the correct fingers and at the end of each month the winner in each particular category is awarded a small prize or ribbon…” Read more on

Here’s game you teacher can play with their students during piano lab time, or just with the family. Provided in the printable download is a game board, musical term cards, “Jump the Plank” cards and an answer sheet.


About this Activity
Ahoy there, Matey! Want to add some swashbuckling fun to your music theory skill building efforts? PirateQuest™ provides young musicians with a pirate-themed game board and 30 basic music term cards to drill and practice. Mix and match the question cards to drill the musical terms they need to know. When they’ve mastered the first set, grab a new set of terms.

Download Pirate Quest | Music Terms Game



Browse more “The Piano Student” music theory posts:

Flash Frog™ | Free Printable Music Flashcards for Beginners
Free Music Memory Game | Treble Clef Note Names
Pirate Quest | Basic Music Terms Game (Free, Printable)
Music for Little Mozarts | iPad App Review
Carnegie Hall Park (Matchbox Parking) | Music Theory Board Game

Most of us start teaching the way our teachers taught us. Good or bad, it’s all we knew about teaching so we did it that way. With this post I thought I’d push beyond those boundaries, and explore the stronger and weaker points about the piano methods that we use every day.  Then I’ll give you ideas of how to make the experience you offer your students even better. Comments are always welcome.


With everything in life, there’s always a trade off. You can have that good thing, but you’ll have to compromise on this other thing. I like the idea of pre-reading pieces, because they allow students to focus on fewer things. I always say, “If juggling three balls is hard, start with just one.” With pre-reading pieces, the challenge of note reading is removed. All students need to do is press keys down to a steady beat and watch to see if the notes are going up or down. Great! The downside, however, is that available methods always have students playing on the black keys. Why not place them in C position right from the beginning? They would be learning the names of the keys from the first lesson.


Pro: Fewer elements to manage
Con: Focus on black keys, rather than focusing on white keys and helping students to learn key names right from the beginning


Problem Solver
Consider writing a few songs in the pre-reading format, but with hands in C position. It  is the best of both worlds. You provide kids with an opportunity to juggle less balls, increasing their success rate, and you teach them where C position is right off the bat!


C Position/G Position
Some teachers, myself included, like to jump right into note reading. Band/orchestra students begin this way all the time, with great success. The challenge that piano students are confronted with, however, is that they must immediately learn 10 notes in two clefs, and then add 7 more notes 8-10 weeks later. Band/orchestra students only need to learn one clef, and around 10-12 notes total for the school year. The upside to this approach is that students begin learning note names from the very beginning, and jump that hurdle sooner – hopefully.


Pro: Kids can master note reading sooner (if parents help drill)
Con: Most method books introduce elements too quickly, overwhelming the student.


Problem Solver
Consider supplementing your piano course. Begin with songs that focus on only the right hand. When they are feeling confident with their note names, add a few songs for just the bass clef. When you see G Position on the way, begin drilling. Ask mom and dad to help out. Provide a prize for student efforts in this area.  Use Beethoven Bucks to reward kids on the way to their goal.


C Position
Some method books take a Middle C Position approach. They begin with Middle C and a few surrounding notes and expand outward in both directions, and into both clefs.


Pro: Notes are limited in the beginning, rather than presenting kids with 10 notes and two clefs as C Position/G Position books do.
Con: I have only limited experience with this approach, though I would tend to want to see how fast the method expands to more notes and rhythms before I would choose it.


Problem Solver
If things are moving too fast for your student, consider supplementing your piano course. Write a few songs that keep them on the first five notes until they really know them. It will quickly build confidence in your young student, and maybe even build in them a lifelong desire for playing music and learning!



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