Here you will find musings on piano teaching and the music of NMP. Watch for new articles. I hope something unique to my teaching style might offer inspiration to add to your personal approach.

  • Allen Myers


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I am sure we all at some point introduce the idea of analyzing music to our students. For me, harmonic analysis is an ongoing discussion with the students from the moment chordal analysis is first introduced in method books. In this article I will write about other elements I have students study prior to sight-reading. 

As a starting point, I will ask the student questions to point out certain aspects of the music. These questions might include looking for new musical concepts introduced recently. We also look for patterns of repetition. These patterns might be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, or a combination of these as in sequences. It also could include fingering, articulations, changes in hand position, regularity of tempo or dynamic changes, and even when the pedal is employed throughout the piece. Recognition of these patterns may ease feelings of anxiety about sight-reading new music that looks challenging, includes new unfamiliar concepts, or is longer in length than what they are use to playing. Forms of repetition and any varied approaches provide a model for the student who is composing or improvising their own music. I will discuss more about some of my thoughts on teaching composition and possibly improvisation in future articles.

I often have students scan the music for anything that might look unusual or things they might not understand. This often happens when students face a new concept such as music without bar lines that one might first encounter with the music of Eric Satie. In my book Vignettes for Solo Piano, the solo Hang Gliding has a middle section without bar lines.

At the intermediate level I might ask them to scan the music for accidentals to see if any exist, and if so, do any reoccur. This is bound to happen in tonal works in minor keys as the raised seventh of the key allows for major V or dominant seventh chords. Occasionally the raised sixth scale degree occurs for the formation of major IV chord or possibly a V/V in minor keys as well. After playing numerous pieces in a minor key, looking for these types of accidentals should hopefully become second nature for them. Examples of these types of accidentals in a minor key can be found NMP literature of Journey to an Oasis, Ashore on an Unknown Island, and Toccata.

Sometimes I might relate back to music played earlier in the lesson to look for any reoccurring issues they may have had and to see if these issues occur in the new piece about to be sight-read. For beginners it may be pointing out those occasional half notes that were played as quarter notes. Unfortunately, I hear this from time to time when the quarter note is the predominant rhythmic value.

Another possible question is “What is the form?” If it is a new form, I will take the time to discuss. Once a student discovers that an ABA form exists, I remind them that the return of the A at the end actually reduces the amount of new material to be learned if it is an exact repetition. If I work through the A section and leave them with the B section to learn for next week (for elementary level it’s probably only eight measures long), I will point out that there is a little more than one measure a day to work through for the following week. If they need extra encouragement, I will point out how quickly they got comfortable with the A section and compare that to the amount of time they practice in a week or even a day if it came together fairy quickly. My goal is to make everything seem manageable. This may be necessary for those who feel that I have assigned a lot of music for the week or for the student who is easily overwhelmed.

Sometimes analysis opens doors to introducing new vocabulary and helps young readers understand why they may run into difficulties. For example, in Noteworthy Elementary Solos of Carol Flatau and Carrie Kraft, the solo A New Little Minuet was placed specifically as the last solo in the book due to the challenges of reading different types of melodic movement between the two hands. After an introduction of parallel, contrary and oblique movement between the two voices, often demonstrated by drawing a set of arrows in relation to each other at the top the page, I will have the student point to examples of each type in the music. My experience has been that a mixture of these movements from note to note tend to give students trouble in reading. Often when difficulty occurs in the reading process, I will draw, though you may wish to have them do it if time allows in the lesson, arrows showing direction from note to note in order to see how the voices change direction. I have had some luck with students improving once the addition of the arrows are drawn in the music as the arrows provide the visual feedback through tricky passages. A further challenge may occur, even with arrows added, when one voice is moving by step and the other by the leap of some interval. If necessary, to further help when needed, I will label the interval. Two specific areas of difficulty I have noticed tend to be with the reading across the bar line and between systems. This discussion is often repeated once the student starts playing the music of J.S. Bach. 

Pretend you are at home practicing 

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As piano teachers, I assume we have all heard from a student at one time or another, hopefully not on a regular basis, “I did not have much time to practice this week.” Or even worse, “I did not practice at all this week”. Occasionally I will say, especially with new students coming to me from another teacher, “Pretend you are at home practicing. Work on your music assigned and do what you do if you were practicing at home. I am not going to stop you until I am ready to discuss what I have heard.”  I will let the student play anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the assignment(s), complexity of the music, or the age of the student. 

Observations of what they do and what they don’t do can be quite revealing about their approach to practicing.  Were problem areas acknowledged before or after playing through the piece? Did the student mark their music if the situation might have warranted it? Are they aware of missed flats or sharps in the key signature, articulations or how they are phrasing the music? Is the younger performer focused more on fingering than noticing changes in hand position? Complex music may require more time to discuss observations so be prepared to talk about broad aspects or to determine an order of importance of specific issues with the remaining time available in the lesson. 

Were there issues that carried over from one piece to another?  Were they aware of such issues? A student who focuses on fingering and not noticing shifts in hand position will probably continue such habits until forced to deal with the issue. In such a case, I have the student analyze each fingering printed in the music by the composer/publisher and ask if it represents a shift in position, and if so, that they circle the fingering. The circle alerts to the shift and forces them to read the note(s).  This is a good place to start for such individuals before sight-reading as well.

While there may be plenty to discuss, I never overlook an opportunity to compliment good practice habits. Encouragement of any kind can go a long way, especially to the perfectionist who only hears the problems in their performance. When time allows, I will reinforce the compliment(s) again at the end of the lesson when speaking to the parents.


Five Finger Music 

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Not only is five finger music a good source of supplementary and recital material for young performers, but I have discovered it is also a good choice for adults returning to piano after many years away from it.

The limited hand position allows adults to reacquainting themselves with note reading. Reinforcement occurs from one piece to another for any one given hand position. If the music limits melodic movement to steps, it’s a good way to get students to think forwards and backwards in the alphabet. As music moves down on either staff by step, I have students say the note names backwards in the alphabet. Thinking forwards when notes go up is usually not an issue. 

In addition, five finger music has a further benefit in the exploration of the keyboard topography if the music requires the performer to move hands up or down an octave in hand position at some point in any piece of music.

I have had success with Jane Hergo’s Piano Tidbits Book 1 with adults returning to piano. Her expectations of the performer with a variety of touches through varying articulations adds to the discussion of piano technique. 

Once the younger student feels comfortable with five finger position pieces  I will consider moving to, for a lack of a a better term, next step five finger position. These are pieces which require the movement of a few fingers out of position on occasion. About half the pieces in Piano Tidbits Book 2 are five finger and the other half require some finger movement for expansion in range.

Noteworthy Elementary Piano Solos of Carol Flatau and Carrie Kraft is another example of a mixed hand position approach. Some stay to five finger position while others employ quite a bit of shifting in position.  A couple of solos in the book include the key signature of D major instead of implying key signatures as accidentals.

Other books to consider would include Jane Hergo’s Five Finger Frolics and Halloween Delights for Five Fingers both which center around middle C position. Five Finger Frolics does have a few selections which require right hand finger three to be placed on Eb for a C minor tonality, while all other solos have the soloist on white keys. Halloween Delights for Five Fingers incorporates more use of black keys as does both Piano Tidbit Books which explore C, G and middle C position. One solo, Blue Ghost, found in Halloween Delights, is also available in sheet music. It is in a D minor five finger position.

 Jubilation has a few moving five finger positions. The solo for one hand requires finger control during moments of two and three-part writing. The expectation of a relaxed hand position while certain combinations of fingers are held down as other fingers play should provide a challenge for the early intermediate performer.


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As time allows during a lesson I find asking questions about a student’s performance helpful to determine their perception and how engaged they are in listening. Students who have parents or other siblings that play piano might find it stressful to receive correction from family members. Instructing these members to ask questions I believe can help. The challenge is to ask questions that lead to the student’s discovering what needs correction. Instead of being told they are wrong about some aspect of their practice, the self-discovery of answering the question guides them into what to practice next.

For instance, if the student was not acknowledging the dynamics in their performance, you could ask, "How well did you observe the dynamics?" If they say “I don't know?”, ask them to play again and pay attention to dynamics. Then afterwards ask the question again.  Students might begin to pick up that any question points to an issue. I like to ask about aspects of the performance that were good as well. Mixing the type of questions keeps them from anticipating that I am always trying to correct and that I am more interested in what they are perceiving while playing. If a student says there was something that needed correction when there was no issue at all, it will alert you to how attentive they are to details of performance. If parents or siblings cannot get the answer they are looking for in the self-assessment, then they should ask a different question to point to the issue at hand.  

Are you breathing? 

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I have discovered over the years that some students naturally hold their breath as they reach very difficult sections of the music. One situation is when the music needs to be moving at a faster pace than what they can currently perform. I sometimes ask the question are you breathing in one of the two scenarios. The first is when it’s obvious to me, though not usually for them. The second is if I suspect they are and a student has a coat or bulky clothes on such as during winter months when it is not as obvious to me. If the students says “I don’t know”, I ask them to play again and observe. Other times they are aware once the question is asked. If the passage is difficult I try to have them slow down and focus on breathing before trying to move the tempo back up again. If the music is fast I suggest they try to breath at a regular interval such as inhaling for one or two measures and exhaling for the next one or two measures. 

Need a short work at a fast pace to challenge the students to continue breathing through the situation? Maybe consider Agitation, Toccata (The Chase) or Scherzo all of which are sold separately or can be found in Vignettes for Solo Piano. Other solos found in the book to consider would include Augmented Reality and Acceleration of Time.

Blocking the Broken 

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Blocking broken chords I find helpful for students to better understand the relationship of the whole to its its parts. Students learn that when I start circling a group of notes, whether in either or both hands that typically surrounding beats one and two and then three and four where harmony might change, that I expect them to play the group as a block chord as a warm up before starting a new piece. Whether it is two-part writing in one hand, a melody that outlines the harmony, or block chord in one hand and an arpeggio in the other, we focus to move quickly playing one block chord to another to build reaction time and kinesthetic memory. Reaction time will be important if the tempo of the music is fast. If fingering is useable I will have them use correct fingering. If however the figure requires shifts in position, we might forego the fingering and simply demonstrate the reading of all the notes as a group. Being picky, I will remind them of the instructions if at any time they start to play the notes one at a time. The goal is for the students to see the groups of notes as harmonically related and not to think of as a string of notes somehow unrelated. Sometimes I will circle groups of notes just to indicate hand positions and their shifts from measure to measures. In other words, steps may be occurring more than arpeggiation of harmony.

Once completed, sight-reading begins. If harmony in left hand is mostly broken chords, I will have the students perform with block chords in the left hand while playing the melody in the right before attempting to play everything as written.

In the “A” section to Santa Rosa Breezes right hand offers opportunities to observe both harmonic relationship to the left hand in addition to melodic hand positions for notes in each measure. Various portions of part two and three in the piano trio Old Woman, Old Woman can be studied for harmonic analysis with your students. In a Bonsai Garden you might consider bar to bar as blocked chords for hand positions. The pentatonic structure of the melody may stretch the readers ears a bit  with the occasional steps that occur. Many of the solos found in Summer Scenes would also benefit for hand position as well.

Syncopation offers an opportunity for drawing attention to broken chords and simplifying a what may appear to be a difficult rhythmic texture upon first glance. Reducing to quarter or half note blocked chords, as the case may be, can ease apprehension the student may have for the syncopation and allow them to focus on hand positions as the harmony changes. In Keyboard Confections the solo Marshmallow Fluff for most of the work could benefit the student with this approach.

Sports Injuries  

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How often as piano teachers have we heard that Joey hurt his hand this week while playing __fill in the sport of your choice here__. Parents will often say their child will skip a lesson until the hand is better. It is probably a good idea to have some solos to reach for that are appropriate level and for the hand not injured in order to avoid the need for a missed lesson. Having music ready for their sight-reading prepares for the unexpected. In addition to sight-reading it is a good opportunity for  introducing new music for an upcoming recital or for a National Federation of Music Club performance. Some solos are written specifically for either right hand only or left hand only. While Nouvelle Music Publishing, LLC offers some of these including Contemplation and The Many Adventures of Axel Sloan, there are some solos which is able to be played by either hand. 

For example, Jubilation (Early Intermediate) has the music presented twice, once in bass clef and another time in treble clef. Both Celebrate! and In the Desert by Jane Hergo from her book Piano Tidbits Book 2 offer a slight different approach. Right hand fingerings are written above the staff while left hand fingerings are below the staff. Changes in hand position and clef changes further challenge the elementary pianist.

Watch for more one hand solos in near future here at Nouvelle Music Publishing, LLC.

Stepping into a Performer’s Shoes 

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I encourage students from time to time once they are comfortable playing through a piece of music that they find multiple recordings on YouTube in which they can play along. Sometimes particular recordings with specific performers are recommended. Students find this easy with medium to slow tempo compositions. I ask that the intermediate students pay attention to variances in interpretation from one performer to the next. This will require multiple listenings of each performance prior to attempting to perform with any video. Stepping into the performers shoes so to speak will allow them to focus on tone, dynamics, voicing, phrasing, rubato, etc. I encourage them to write on their music with the interpretive markings to be able to anticipate actions needed while playing along. It is revealing when they discuss their discoveries how much they are actually hearing in the recordings.  Why not try this approach with any of the recordings available on the Nouvelle Music Publishing website or on the company’s SoundCloud page.

Say the Problem 

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Students early on learn that I have particular phrases that they will hear often. Soon students are able to answer before I finish reciting one of the phrases. Any particular phrase is dropped once a concept is thoroughly mastered. 

Of all my repetitive phrases, this one is probably heard the most. By saying the problem, specifically out loud, the student hears themselves say one thing and do another when mistakes occur. All of a sudden they stop and correct themselves. Soon, if not immediately, they are performing correctly as they say the problem. Occasionally something in their playing that was not an issue pops up as they focus on a single problem. I never worry about these as long as the one they are focused on is improving. Once corrected, the focus can move to another area. 

Often the first issue is, “What is the problem?” Not an issue for me but sometimes a challenge for the students when asked out of the blue about a performance. To help the student out, I make a list of what should be addressed at the top of the page in addition to highlighting problems in the score. 

If a student has problems with half note rhythm and can correctly play all other rhythms, I will often have them count out loud “1-2” every time they come to a half note regardless of its metric position. If the student is not paying attention to fingering I will have them say the fingering out loud. If the issue is dynamics and counting in general, I might have them count dynamically. In other words, count soft in soft sections and louder in the loud sections. Maybe the issue is remembering to use the sustain pedal. Say “down” when foot is to be applied down and “up” when there is a need to lift the pedal. If it is a matter of key signature, have the student say “sharp” or “flat” for notes that are in the key signature. Military March is an example where this approach to key signature might help considering its six brief key changes moving through the major keys of D, C, Ab, F, A, Eb before returning to D. Sometimes coordination between the hands can be an issue in syncopated rhythms such as in my book Vignettes for Solo Piano (see solos such as Agitation, Second Time Around, Acceleration of Time, Jazz District at 18th and Vine, and A Brazilian Sunset). For those situations I write T, L and R between staffs or below bass staff for each rhythmic event in a bar or passage. T represents hands playing together while L is for left hand and R for right hand. After placed, I have them say what is written while tapping the appropriate hand(s) on their knees. Once mastered at appropriate tempo or slower, we move to a faster tempo than what is required in the solo, then I have the student return their hands to the piano to play the passage. 

Anytime a student finds the activity difficult we slow the music tempo down till we find the tempo at which they can perform with ease. I don’t care how slow it needs to be as long as they say out loud the problem while performing the activity. 

The ultimate goal is for the student to recognize their own issues and correct themselves without saying the problem out loud.