Cole "Cleans Up His Hand"

Cole started piano lessons a few months ago.

"When you've made a huge mess playing with your Legos, what does your Mom or Dad tell you to do?"

"Clean them UP!" replied Cole.

"When we play the piano, it's just the same with our fingers. Sometimes our hands get messy and into some pretty goofy positions. The best thing to do is to clean up our hands so they're ready to play again the next time."

Sounds simple, and it works remarkably well. Since younger beginners have such a hard time maintaining a solid hand position WHILE they're playing, I suggest that they try to RETURN to a healthy hand position when they've finished their piece. 

With enough reinforcement and practice, this hand position will become their new norm. 

What's on your wish list this year? Mine has some pretty yummy things.

Rhyme Time: How to Play 7ths

The beginning of Rhyme Time, one of my favorite pieces from Elissa Milne's Little Peppers

One thing I love about Elissa Milne's pieces is the interesting, catchy ways they set up teaching basic technical skills. 

In her piece "Rhyme Time" there's a snazzy series of 7ths in the left hand that end the piece. At first look, it seems pretty challenging. If you think of the left hand notes as a series of unconnected intervals - each one needing to be found out of thin air, it's daunting. There is, of course, an easier way.

The last three measures of Rhyme Time

If you look closely, you'll see a brilliant technical teaching opportunity. This is not any random clump of 7ths. The series is perfectly organized to teach a healthy way to move from interval to interval. It's a delightful etude "study" moment built right into the piece. 

Here's a short video of my student, Tasha, explaining how she learned to do it. Notice how that by leaving her thumb in place, she can simply close her hand and move to the new position.

I recommend purchasing Elissa's music from  Book Depository . They're doing a better job of keeping it in stock, and they NEVER charge shipping to anywhere in the world. This particular book is even ON SALE right now. (They must have known I was going to write about it!)

I recommend purchasing Elissa's music from Book Depository. They're doing a better job of keeping it in stock, and they NEVER charge shipping to anywhere in the world. This particular book is even ON SALE right now. (They must have known I was going to write about it!)

At the bottom of this page is a quick recording I made of the entire piece so you can hear what it sounds like when it's all put together. It's fun to teach, and fun to play.


I've been using these Mini Incentive Charts this month with great results. I highly recommend them. There is one for almost every kind of student. Everything from Pirates to Rock Stars. They're great for short term goals and quick feedback. 

In fact, the mother of one of the students I am using an Owls Mini Incentive Charts w/Stickers with just posted this:

"I'm seven owls in and I'm working on speed and dynamics - can I please play it three more times?"

Thumb Puppet Lessons

I've been getting a lot of questions about exactly how I use Thumb Puppets

Here's the thing: I don't use them as any kind of finger-strengthening device. I use them for something else entirely.

The best way I've found to bring hand position to life is to use a Thumb Puppet. 

Reminding a student to maintain a beautiful hand position is one of the most important and most tedious parts of teaching piano. In addition to using a ladybug to help show a student what good hand position feels like, I have another set of props I like to use.

Here's a sample Thumb Puppet lesson:

  • Start by reversing the roles. 
  • Let your student sit in your teaching chair - you sit on the piano bench.
  • Have the student carefully watch you play a simple phrase.
  • Suddenly let your own hand position collapse.
  • Watch the delight when the student gets to collapse the Giraffe because of YOUR bad hand position!
  • Repeat this several times.
  • This helps them understand what to look for and makes it a much more joyful lesson.
  • Besides, kids adore playing the teacher. 

After they get the idea, switch back to your regular roles (and chairs) and try it again. They'll get the idea quickly. Once the thumb puppet has collapsed a time or two, put it away. Use the thumb puppet for short periods of time over many lessons. After a while, all it will take is to put the puppet on the music rack and they'll perk up their hand immediately.

It's important to pick something specific to work on, and not to do it for too long. Just like any other kind of practicing; you want to do it in small, achievable units. You want them to like it when you pull out the giraffe. It should feel playful and almost silly.

An added benefit of this is the opportunity to let the giraffe (flower, robot)  take on the role of hand position policeman. You can step out of that role and let the giraffe take on his own persona. Be imaginative with this. Don't take it all too seriously. 

Wouldn't you be more interested in working on your fingers if it impacted the well-being of a Giraffe?  A Pirate? A Robot?

It's so easy to forget that kids are kids. They want to play. They'd rather experience something than get a lecture. Wouldn't you? 

My favorite thing about using thumb puppets is that they move the focus off me and only something whimsical. And who couldn't use a little more lightheartedness in their teaching?

Here's a short video I made about my philosophy about thumb puppets. You can see the collapsing giraffe. How does it make you feel? Do you think it would get your attention in a lesson?

Octaves - One Simple Tip

Octaves One Simple Tip.jpg

The Board Dudes Magnetic 2-in-1 Dry Eraser Medium Point Marker is a magnificent pedagogical tool.

That is one sentence I never imagined writing.

I think it's particularly hilarious since it includes the word "dudes." (Though I do live near the beach in a town full of hipsters that work at places like Google and Twitter.)

My student Rohini is a scientist. She's finishing up her Phd. at UC Berkeley after doing her undergraduate work at Stanford. She loves playing the piano and takes public transportation from Berkeley all the way out to my studio on the west side of San Francisco each week for her lesson.

As with most of my adult students, we spend a great deal of time on basic technical issues. When adults return to lessons after a hiatus, the problems they had as young people haven't improved with age. 

She was working on the Khachaturian Toccata. She fell in love with a recording of it and was bound and determined to play it. (To be honest, it isn't my favorite piece but it's a piece that students love to play. It's another one of those "Sounds SO much harder than it is" pieces we all need up our sleeves.) 

She was struggling to play the left hand octaves with a stable hand. Desperate, I grabbed a two-ended dry erase marker I had sitting near me.

"Try holding this," I suggested.

We talked about ways she might experiment with it. She took it home with her and I wondered what would happen.

A week later, she came back and made this video to share her experiences with the Cool Dudes Marker

Part of the reason this worked so well was because of the size and shape of the pads on the ends of the marker. They're designed to be white board erasers. They had just the right amount of traction and cushion to force Rohini to make a firm shape with a flexible arm. If you don't have an arch in your hand, you can't hold onto the marker. 

I loved the connections she made about where the weight came from, how her hand had to be a firm shape and yet everything else was relaxed. The Cool Dudes had it right. They just didn't know they'd accidentally made a great pedagogical invention!

Now to find something just the right size for the interval of a 5th....



Clean Up Your Toys!

Every parent on the planet has said it. We always start with a sweeter, kinder explanation, "When you're done with the Legos, you need to put them back in the container, honey." 

Before long it's simply, "Clean up your toys!" 

I use this idea to help me teach hand position.

I ask Gabriella to "clean up her hand" when she finishes playing a phrase. She is typical of a student who has multiple hand issues: collapsing joints, over-involving her entire hand in every task. (In this example she is supposed to be playing all quarter notes, though you'd never know it.)

I let everything else go and work on this one concept.

By holding her 5th finger down while moving the rest of her hand into position, she also strengthens the outside of her hand. This simple "game" will become an automatic part of her playing within a few weeks. 

 It's so tempting to try to work on everything at once. It's easy keep piling on instructions too quickly.

Instead, pick one specific part of a wobbly hand position and address it.

When I ask Gabriella, "What are you doing?" Observe her response.

"Clean up your toys," she says.

It's a sticky, shorthand way to describe this task.

"Please exhibit fine hand position!" will probably not be as successful.

This is especially true if your student has poor auditory processing skills. Some kids have trouble understanding verbal direction. The more linguistically complicated the instruction, the less likely they are to understand it - much less be able to process and achieve it.

  • If you want more information on the subject of auditory processing, I recommend the book Like Sound Through Water: A Mother's Journey Through Auditory Processing Disorder. It's a lovely memoir of a mother coming to understand her son and the way he experiences the world. I read many books like this - about different kinds of learners and different kinds of minds. I find that they make me a better teacher and a more compassionate person.

Note: I always do preliminary work with the ladybug before asking a child to "clean up their toys."

Do you have a student whose hand position might benefit from a little toy clean-up?