Teaching Syncopation with Rocket Man

On the assignment sheet I’m currently using with students there is a practice reflection that also includes a space for students to write down a piece they would like to learn.

“What piece would you like to learn?” is one of my favorite questions on the practice diary. Not only is it an opportunity for the student to communicate their musical interests with me, but it’s opened my eyes to new music. It’s amazing to see how many students push themselves to learn to play repertoire much harder than their “level” – especially when it’s a song they really want to play.

Giving students some autonomy and choice in music is also important for retention. For more on that, check out the post: A Picture Number is Worth a Thousand Words: Studio Retention-Rate Marketing.

One of my students who plays around the late-intermediate level recently wanted to play Rocket Man. Musicnotes.com is my go-to place for all individual song requests. The arrangement I found for her has proven to be an excellent study in syncopation and is challenging her rhythm skills.

Perhaps you have a student who may enjoy it as well?

Here is the arrangement of Rocketman on Musicnotes.com.

Just for fun, here’s the Offical Music Video for Rocket Man.


Christmas Collaborations: Recommended Piano Ensemble Music

Perhaps more than any other time of year, Christmas is a time when we, as a society, make music together the most. Whether it’s caroling, singing Christmas music in church, or as a family in the car while you drive to grandma’s house, there’s just something about Christmas music that encourages music-making together.

So if with our voices, why not also with our instruments? Each year, the week before Christmas we have group classes in my studio. These classes are the perfect opportunity for ensemble playing.

In this post, I will share a few go-to resources I use in my piano studio so my students can make music as a group. The books and music mentioned in this post do not include duet repertoire, piano trios (such as piano, cello, violin), only piano ensembles of three or more.

I’m lucky enough to have four keyboards in my studio we can use which is, of course, ideal but not always realistic. If you don’t have four keyboards, don’t despair – there are options here for you and ways you can equip your students to make music together!

Speaking of Christmas piano ensembles…perhaps one of the most-watched on YouTube (with currently 18,950,525 views), is the Piano Guys’ version of Angels We Have Heard on High with 32 fingers and 8 thumbs.

Granted, this is exactly a “piano ensemble” but it felt fitting to include it in this post because it’s so incredible.


Downloadable Sheet Music Ensembles

Susan Paradis

Susan Paradis has several Piano Trios available on her website.


She also has a Jingle Bells Duet with Rhythm Ensemble that, while it’s a piano duet, includes an ensemble of 4 rhythm instruments. This is a fun ensemble to use during group class with elementary students especially.

Continue reading

Spring Recital 2018: “Songs We Know”

This past Sunday was my studio’s 7th spring recital. Every year I try to do something different to keep things interesting. Last year we did a studio-wide collaborative project (a narrative suite). In 2016 we did collaborative pieces (duets, trios, 2-pianos 4-hands).

Sometimes in the fall, I hold a themed recital. This past fall we did a church music recital and three years ago we did a color recital (this recital was prior to Piano Pantry so I don’t have a post on it).

This year the theme was “Songs We Know.” Usually, I reserve the majority of pop-tune playing and such for our summer picnic performance. With our house project and all that’s going on this year though, I decided to forego the summer performance. Thus, the popular-themed music for spring recital.

I’m going to share a couple of highlights from our recital including a list of the repertoire books we used.

Continue reading

Trusty Christmas Favorites: Repertoire I Return to Year After Year

We all have our favorites. Our favorite Christmas songs, our favorite composers, our favorite arrangements. Each year when it comes time to pull out the Christmas books for students, while I try new ones each year, it seems I always return to the sturdy few.

Today I’m going to share with you my favorite Christmas books for students from beginner through late intermediate levels. The repertoire in this post to me is what I consider good solid arrangements. While several pieces I’ll highlight are jazzy, I’m not including any books that are specifically labeled with specific styles like “jazzy” or “Romantic Christmas” etc. (those are for another post another time).

Today is just about good old trusty Christmas music.

After so many years, you begin to see not only which books seem to appeal most to students, but which pieces within those books are the best. So, I’m also going to also highlight some of the arrangments I return to again and again.

I always ask my students if they have any requests for Christmas pieces, so hopefully seeing specific piece names within books will help you as you do your Christmas book shopping.


Faber Supplemental Christmas

I often give my students a Christmas book that is below their current method level, so if they’re playing in Faber 2B, I may choose to give them 2A Christmas. I want them just to be able to have fun playing Christmas music and to be able to play as many pieces as they can.

Level 4 is my favorite especially because of the jazzy arrangements of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Winder Wonderland that use lots of 7th chords. Continue reading

Favorite Hymn and Praise Piano Books (and a Church Music Recital)

Finding quality arrangements of hymns and praise/worship music for piano students is not easy. To help make your search easier, in this post, I’m going to share a few that have proven to work well with my students in recent years. I’ll also share snippets from a church-music-themed piano recital I did with my students.

Let’s discuss why finding appropriate hymn and praise/contemporary worship music arrangements for piano students is tricky.

First, hymns are written in a homophonic (and even more specifically, homorhythmic) texture meaning they sing the same rhythm in a blocked chordal structure – one that is not easy to play for even intermediate-level piano students.

Second, while many churches are moving away from hymns, contemporary worship music trends, and changes so quickly, many of the “praise” books published in years past no longer resonate with students.

This definitely creates a struggle for piano teachers!


Functional Musicianship in Daily Life

One of my solutions is to ensure all my students learn to play chord charts and lead sheets so we can easily download any worship song they like and learn how to play it or at least sing and accompany using chordal patterns.

Part of my teaching philosophy is that I want to enable my students to be functional musicians who can operate in multiple situations, especially those they encounter daily. For many in my studio, the church is a big one.

One of my students just started playing in their youth worship band, and many others are providing music as preludes, communion, offering, and leading during youth-led services. I have several students who are also singers and love singing and playing contemporary worship music.

The next two photos are from our church music recital.

All my students learn to play from chord charts and lead sheets, and a few older ones work on 4-part hymns on occasion, even if their church doesn’t sing hymns. It’s still an important skill they may be able to use someday!


Favorite Church Music Books for Students

In my opinion, Alfred, in general, has the best collection of sacred music out there. Their Sacred Performer series is full of a plethora of any type of book you could imagine. A lot of sacred music I get for students is published by Alfred.

Disclaimer: All opinions regarding publishers and books are 100% my own. This is not a paid advertisement. However, please note that Piano Pantry is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program. There may be links to Amazon products in the post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Simply put, being an associate allows me to make a small percentage from Amazon on items to which I link at no extra cost to you.

One of my all-time favorites

Alfred Student HymnalI had been on the lookout for a while for a book of hymns in their original state (not arranged) that were slightly simplified. The homophonic texture of most hymns is quite complicated for most students to play.

The Piano Student’s Hymnal from Alfred is exactly what I was looking for!

Praise Hits

Praise Hits is a solid selection of music that’s generally not outdated. Often in the “praise hits” world, with the quick shift in contemporary worship music styles that occur, it’s easy for a lot of students to not be familiar with the music even in books marked as “Popular,” “Current,” or “Contemporary.”

Levels 1 and 2 are OK, but Level 3 is my favorite. The pieces are written in a very chordal style with inversions and voicing similar to what I might choose to play if I were playing from a chord chart.

All of the levels correlate with the Alfred Basic Piano Library levels.


Hymn Book

In that same Alfred Basic Piano Library is the Hymn Book series.

The leveling follows the same as the Praise Hits books.




Play Hymns

The Play Hymns Series by Melody Bober and Robert Vandall is really nice.

Book 3 in particular, has a winning arrangement of It is Well with My Soul that sounds pretty impressive.

I’ve successfully used the arrangement in book 3 with students playing in Faber Level 3A with a little rote help.


Faber Supplements

Of course, I can’t go without mentioning Faber’s Hymns supplements.

Book 2B is one of my favorites from this series since it focuses on using primary chord progressions.

Book 4 is one of my all-time favorite hymn arrangement books for students. There are lots of pieces, and the arrangements are all very pleasing. I go for this book before I go for books 3 or 4 in the Play Hymn Series mentioned above.


Bastien Hymn Favorites and Popular Hymns

Bastien doesn’t make it into my studio often, but I have used the Hymn Favorites books quite a bit. Level 2, once again, is my favorite.

Like Alfred and Faber, the levels correlate with the levels of the piano method series.

The Popular Hymn series is similar. I’ll be honest; I’m not exactly sure the difference between the two series. Maybe one was published later with supposedly more “popular” hymns of the time?


Christian Hits for Teens

Christian Hits for Teens is one of my newest discoveries. One of my students performed “The Prayer” from Book 3 at the recital.

As an intermediate-level student, not only was the piece a bit of a stretch, but I’ll admit I didn’t allow enough preparation time for her to master it.

We were about to cut the piece short during one of her lessons when we took a moment to listen to Celine Dion and Josh Groban sing the piece on YouTube. It gave me a brilliant idea!

Since we had two keyboards on stage, she played the first 2 1/2 pages, and I picked up when it became beyond her ability halfway through page two and played to measure 60. She played measures 61 through the downbeat of measure 64 then I played the final page. She joined me on the final two resting chord measures to close it out, and it worked quite splendidly – just like Josh and Celine! 😉


Current and Classic Praise

Carol Tornquist is one of my favorite arrangers of Christian piano arrangements. Her book Current and Classic Praise (Late Intermediate / Early Advanced) is one of my absolute favorites. A couple of my students have played from it and really enjoyed it.

The selections are current and classics, literally! My favorites, in particular, include 10,000 Reasons, How Great is our God, In Christ Alone, Your Grace is Enough, and Your Great Name. I have to say though that there’s not one arrangement in the book that I don’t like!


Christian Hits

She also has a book called Christian Hits I recently purchased and am excited to keep on hand. It’s marked as “Easy Piano,” but we all know that’s a lie. 🙂 Come on, publishers!

I have a student who plays around the Faber Level 3B level; this was perfect. It includes inversions, root-5th-octave-crossover accompaniment patterns, dotted 16th rhythms, and plenty of syncopation.

My biggest qualm with the whole “easy piano” mark is that when people other than teachers (like piano parents) go out to buy a book for their students for Christmas or something, they never pick the proper difficulty level because of labels like this. They think, “gee, my student has been taking piano for five years; they surely play harder than easy music,” and they get them an advanced level book that is not even close to what they can handle. We should all put our heads together and develop a better labeling system!


Super Easy Songbook: Hymns

This Hymns book from the Super Easy Songbook series by Hal Leonard is a great resource to have on hand as it’s full of 60 hymns in lead-sheet style in the keys of C, F, and G.

It includes charts with suggested chord inversion at the beginning of every piece.

One of my adult students, who has played by ear her whole life (and only in the key of F!), is playing out of this book. I also have her reading 4-part hymns in various keys and playing one chord chart praise hit each week. She is doing great with the combination and is a star student!


The Phillip Keveren Series

One of my other favorite composers (even more than Carol Tornquist, shh!) is Phillip Keveren. The guy is brilliant. Hal Leonard has a gold mine with his incredible Phillip Keveren Series out there LOL. 🙂

My all-time favorite piano worship music book is Worship with a Touch of Jazz. Oh my, it’s gorgeous.

This is from the Piano Solo Late Intermediate/Early Advanced series. My student playing in the RCM Celebration Series Level 6 is playing from this book.

There’s also a Hymns with a Touch of Jazz book I came across while writing this post that’s already in my shopping cart. I can’t wait to try it out!

From his Easy Piano series, is the Weekly Worship book that is full of 52 hymns.

The leveling would be good for a student around Faber 3A-3B. It is also a great book for adult students interested in playing hymns that may find the homophonic hymn style too challenging.

As a bonus, each piece includes a short “hymn history” segment – a beautiful tool for discussing the piece.

10,000 Reasons (15 Contemporary Christian Hits), another in the Easy Piano series, has some great arrangements.

One of my students who’s big into praise and worship music has gone through nearly every piece in this book!



Our CHurch-Music-Themed Recital

For our church-music recital, every student had the opportunity to perform two pieces. The first piece was an assigned “reading” piece arrangement. For their second piece, they were given the option of:

  • Another reading/arrangement
  • A piece by ear
  • A chord chart to play and sing
  • A lead sheet
  • 4-part hymn with the possibility of the audience singing along
  • Other ideas they may have…

Four of my youngest students played a piece by ear. They included “The B.I.B.L.E.,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “God is so Good,” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” They played the melody in the RH, and we added single bass tone harmonies on the left.

This father/son duo played an arrangement of Christ the Lord is Risen Today. How special is that!?

I was especially happy to have a couple of students play hymns that the audience sang along with. One played “Faith of our Fathers” about halfway through the recital (I “led” the singing), and another did the “Doxology” as the final piece of the recital. It was a great way to close out a church-music-themed recital and to pull the audience in to make music together!

Aren’t they delightful?


What are your favorite church music books? Let’s keep the list going in the comments!


Descriptive and Imaginative

A review of music by Lynette Sawatsky (and a free download offer)

Today I want to share with you a review of the music of Canadian teacher, composer, and adjudicator Lynette Sawatsky. She has quite a few collections available, but I’ll be focusing on Seasons Change and Once Upon a Time.


Once Upon a Time


One of the things I like most about the Once Upon a Time collection is Lynette’s attention to connecting the music to the imagination. She encourages the student to paint a picture in their mind of the piece and the story it is conveying.

For example, in the piece “Spicy Burrito,” she makes the connection between spicing up our snacks or mealtime with different flavors and textures and encouraging the student to customize the piece on the repeat by changing one or more RH quarter notes into double eighth notes in certain measures in order to “spice it up.”

There are 11 pieces included in the book that are perfect for captivating and encouraging students imaginations. I mean, how often do you see a piece with the title “Discombobulated Pigeon”? I would love to hear all the conversations that go on regarding the story that piece is telling! Continue reading

Three-in-One: A Review of Little Gems for Piano 

(and an MLT-based Application)

As I was driving to my studio this morning I was thinking about the early years of piano instruction. While they’re often the hardest for parents and children to get through, the first few months and years are the most important for several reasons.

First, we must engage our music students in a way that fosters a love of and a successful experience at making music. Second, we must develop a healthy technique so they have freedom at the piano from the start. Third, we need to introduce students to a variety of sounds, tonalities, and meters so they can hear, think, and engage in music with understanding. 

That’s a whole lot of goodness wrapped up into a student’s first experience at the piano!

Today I’m to going to share my thoughts on a book called Little Gems for Piano and how rote pieces like these can cover all three of these critical areas in one. We will focus especially on the last one as it is part of the philosophy I am slowing working to incorporate in my teaching called Music Learning Theory (MLT) by the late Dr. Edwin Gordon. Continue reading

2017 Spring Recital: The Magical Forest, A Narrative Suite

This year was my studio’s 6th Spring Recital. For the last several years I’ve been trying to mix things up a bit to keep the big recital fresh and exciting. Everyone plays a solo in the first half of the recital followed by a 10-minute intermission.

The second half of the recital changes from year to year. Two years ago everyone played a jazzy style and I explained to the audience before each style set what they should expect to hear. Last year we did collaborative pieces including duets, trios, and two pianos with four hands (some pieces with a live drummer).

This year, we did a studio-wide collaborative project. I pulled out a book I’ve been itching to use for several years but didn’t have enough students at an early intermediate level to have performed them until now.

I’m going to share the process of pulling something like this together and also share a free download to help you plan your own production of this narrative suite.


The Magical Forest Narrative Suite

The Magical Forest- A Narrative Suite for Piano by Nancy Lau combines short narration with pieces. Each piece also has a representative drawing.

Pieces include: Entering the Magical Forest, Forest Fanfare, March of the Critters, Bear Dance, Waltz of the Deer, The Fairies Delight, Backwoods Bop, Woodland Farewell, and Leaving the Magical Forest. Continue reading

Spring Recital 2016: A Collaborative Recital



This past weekend I held my fifth spring recital. Each year I try to do something a little different. This year the first half featured student solos and the second half collaborative pieces. There were several duets, one-piano six-hands, and two-piano eight-hand pieces. Besides a couple of duets here and there, this is the first time I’ve had all my students collaborate. Continue reading