How to Turn Negative Into Positive


Parker was a precocious child who loved to play the piano. 

Then one day, she wasn’t. 

It was frustrating. She went from playful to pessimistic in a matter of weeks.

I was flummoxed.

How had she suddenly become difficult? It didn't matter what I said, she didn't want to do it.

I needed something persuasive.

I took ten $1 Music Money bills and put them on the piano.

“Parker,” I said, “These are yours to keep.” 

She smiled.

“Or yours to lose.”

She looked concerned.

“Every time you say something negative, you’ll lose a dollar. If you make it through the entire lesson without saying something like ‘Oh, that’s looks HARD’ or 'I don't think I can do that' then you’ll have $10.”

“Pretty cool!” she said.

“But if I hear you say anything negative, like ‘I don’t think I can do that’ you’ll lose a dollar.”

“OK!” she said positively.

I pulled out a new piece.

She eyed it suspiciously.

“That looks...” (She started to say ‘way too hard’ - but stopped herself.)

“That looks...challenging." Big grin. "And I LIKE a challenge!”


In my studio, when someone becomes a bit negative, I use Parkerization. I use whenever I need to show a student just how negative they've become without turning them even MORE negative.

Once I had another student request it.

“Diane,” she said, frustrated. “I think I need to be Parkerized!”

Perhaps one of your students could benefit from a little Parkerization?

Nightingale from Attention Grabbers Book Two.


The sweet piece “Nightingale” is dedicated to Parker. It’s in Attention Grabbers Book Two. It's a piece designed to sound like it uses pedal, but doesn't actually use the pedal until the last two measures.


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?

White it out

Keep white-out tape handy to make unwanted fingerings and markings disappear.

Encourage students to write in the fingerings they're actually going to use. White out everything they don't use. Learning to ignore is nowhere near as valuable a skill as learning to mark music to reflect your real intentions. Even the finest editions print fingerings which are only suggestions. Composers and Editorsmyself included, print the fingerings they truly believe will work the best for the majority of performers. They won't work for everyone.

I've tried many different kinds and these are my favorites. The pictures are links if you want to click on them and take a look. 

If you're left-handed, I recommend this one.

It works well in either hand.

Sometimes, a student will play something different from what's printed on the page. If it's at least as logical as what's printed, I will help them white out what's there and change it to what they're already playing. (I'm not talking about re-writing Beethoven Sonatas here. I'm talking about something like changing a half note chord at the end of a Piano Town Level One Technic piece to two quarter notes. Something simple like that.) There can be great learning opportunities in helping a student understand how to write down what they're already doing. It's actually a kind of dictation.

Is there a fingering or two you need to white out? Is there a student you'd like to encourage to play what's on the page? Do you need to stock up on white-out for the fall?

Ladybug Squeeze Toy

A sensation is worth more than a thousand words.

Ladybug Squeeze Toy     Click on the ladybug to visit the store  to buy ladybugs for your studio

Ladybug Squeeze Toy

Click on the ladybug to visit the store

to buy ladybugs for your studio

Each student who enters my studio gets a ladybug of their very own to keep on their home piano. I love watching students wrap their fingers around the Ladybug. Just like magic, their fingers are molded into a beautiful, round shape. Quick and easy to use, it shows a child what hand position should feel like by using propriaception.

Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

5-year-old student's hand position before the Ladybug.

Ladybug under a 5-year-old student's hand.

Ladybug under a 5-year-old student's hand.

I tell the child to line up their knuckles on top of the line that runs up the middle of the Ladybug. They need to put their thumb right around and into the Ladybug's mouth.

After the Ladybug is removed.

Is there a student in your studio who needs a little Ladybug encouragement?

Bonus idea: Use ladybug stickers to remind a student to use their best hand position in difficult pieces or passages.

For the tiniest hands

I keep this bumpy ball nearby.

Originally designed

as a massage ball,

its bumps stimulate

the inside of the hand

developing awareness

of hand position

from the inside out.