Creating Musical Learning Environments – Not Successfully, but Faithfully

Word Art created by the staff and me at my placement school using

By defining the best cooperative practices, music teachers can design spaces that support varied multi-cultural students while directly addressing social climate and procedures in the learning environment. I believe that effective classroom environments are critical to progressing music students.

As I have recently completed my Masters in Teaching from CWU in WA, I found myself especially drawn to INTASC (national standards for educators) Standard 3 which examines classroom environments. At the end of my Masters I completed my thesis on classroom learning environments. I love getting to know my individual students and their unique talents and strengths during lessons and I attribute much of my success as a private teacher to my studio environment that welcomes student voice and building relationships with curiosity. Now, I am broadening my approach to teaching environments to include elementary classrooms and I hope to bring my easy-going style of getting to know students individually to larger class sizes. This includes connecting with diverse students and learning some new strategies as well.

Within my private studio, I am applying my thesis work in classroom environments, and working toward student-centered decor–having pictures of children my students’ ages, ethnicity and identity on the walls, as well as by adding flexible seating and cooperative movement. Environment is one of the things I can control and organize so I think that is why I enjoy it so much! When dealing with student actions and trying to motivate them and encourage them to practice and play an instrument the action list seems to get much smaller on what I can do. I like this quote attributed to Mother Theresa: “We do not need to be successful; we only need to be faithful.”

Good luck organizing your environment to induce an atmosphere of cooperation, building relationships with curiosity and having decor that represents your child. And maybe ask yourself, “do I like practicing with me?” Or rather, “if I were in my child’s shoes would I like working with me?” I will continue to work on my studio environment which includes the relationship building and feelings of being valued for each student, one heart at a time.

Here is a link to my professional school portfolio if you’d like to see what I’ve been working on when we are not in lessons together.

Is a Reward Better than a Punishment?


What about rewards? Will my child practice more if they are rewarded more? Or is punishment better? When they don’t practice will taking away electronics or adding extra chores motivate them to work harder next time? You may be asking yourself these same questions after trying both with limited success or an outright rebellion! Depending on your child’s age rewards may work better than punishments as rewards are simpler and punishments are much more complex. After a punishment you cannot simply carry on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible. Then analyze your behavior and how to correct it. What if there is another parenting technique that’s even better than both rewards and punishments? Teamwork.  Let your child know they’re not alone and their ability, motivation and amount of practice will increase!


A young child –lets call her Marie, came into my studio with lots of physical energy and proceeded to hide under the piano then behind the couch and laughed like it was a game when her mother tried to coax her to the bench by promising a visit to the splash pad after our lesson. “If you sit on the bench then we can go to the splash pad.  Don’t you want to play in the water? Come to the bench or no splash pad.” This promise of reward or reward-turned-punishment is conditional. Heather Turgeon, a child physiologist tells us why conditional punishments and rewards don’t motivate.

“Many parents grew up with punishments, and it’s understandable that they rely on them. But punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in. Punishments make us either rebel, feel shamed or angry, repress our feelings, or figure out how not to get caught…Rewards are more like punishment’s sneaky twin. Families find them alluring (understandably), because rewards can control a child momentarily. But the effect can wear off, or even backfire: “How much do I get?” a client told us her daughter said one day when asked to pick up her room.”

In this case, young Marie wanted to continue her game of hide/seek and was determined not to get caught, nevermind getting to the bench. Her laughter seemed to express a challenge to her mother which I’m betting created anger in her mother as well as frustration and embarrassment too.  After distracting Marie with my fishing pole and mermaid I was able to say, ‘wow it is hard to calm down and sit on the bench when it’s a beautiful day to play; I understand you want to play right now. Can you think of a game we can play at the piano? Let me know if you need my help?’


In this way we can partner with children and be a guide rather than someone there to control. 

Acknowledging our children’s feelings is often the first step to problem solving. As I outline in my Million Dollar Lesson I talked with Marie’s mother after the lesson to get a better picture of why Marie’s behavior was so exited and musically unfocused. Her Mom also shared with me about challenges in their home and personal frustrations. I again restated emotions and reiterated that we were a team with Marie; we came up with ideas such as 2-minute talking sessions where Marie can talk about whatever she wants, engage in more hugs, walk to lessons (to let out some physical energy beforehand), and be less scheduled with more free time on lesson days, as well as how to show Marie that she was on the same team as her mother.  A better response to Marie’s antics may have been ‘‘when you come out from under the piano and finish your lesson we’ll go to the splash pad. I can’t wait! Let me know if you need some help.” 

In this way Marie’s mother is available to help as a resource, encourager and, yes a teammate. She is unconditionally loving Marie as well as giving her the opportunity to make a choice and letting her know she is not alone. This positive mindset where we solve problems with togetherness has also been studied by researcher, Shawn Achor. He calls it a “happiness advantage” because a positive brain outperforms one that is negative, neutral, or stressed; 90% of your happiness is not predicted by your external world but by how your brain processes your external world.”


No matter how irrational or difficult a moment in our world might seem, we can respond in a positive way that says: “I see you. I’m here to understand and help. I’m on your side. We’ll figure this out together.” Ask me about more musical ways we can work together and your child will surprise you by the ways he/she loves to practice!


Plan Your Work; Work Your Plan

“I just don’t have time for practice right now,”

“I don’t know where the time went today,”

“We didn’t get to practicing today,”

Are these common phrases at your house?  Is each day different and a whirlwind of events is swirling by at all times?

Take a deep breath.  It will never be perfect.  Life will never balance.  We do what we can and use our limited resources for good.  You are using your limited resources for good.  You are enough.  The power lies within you.  Can you do a little better?  Do you want to progress?  Can you learn and grow?  Yes.  And so can your child.  But how?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. teaches about how to choose good things like eating that healthy apple or making that time for our child to practice.  She uses the word willpower when it comes to choosing the good and identifies “one group of people who seem to be natural willpower athletes: leaders [and I would add parents]. Being in a position of power or high responsibility seems to motivate people to use whatever willpower they have left. Even when overwhelmed and exhausted, they will dredge up the final reserves to get things done.

There is a downside to pushing through, however. Studies show that leaders will exert their willpower until they crash and burn. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals who are more likely to “conserve” our energy, they spend every last bit of their willpower reserve. This puts them at greater risk for real willpower exhaustion.” (Why Leaders Have More Willpower, and More Willpower Failures, Psychology Today)

What are we to do after neglecting our piano again and feeling like a triathalete crossing the finish line ready to collapse?  Dr. McGonigal advises another “important ingredient of athletic training: rest and recovery. It’s not just world leaders who face this risk: anyone with a lot of responsibilities (hello, parents) may find themselves burned out. If you are already pushing the limits of what seems humanly possible, your challenge may be to stop before you collapse.”

Please view rest as “an intergral part of productivity, not a reward to save for when all the tasks are done.” (Angela Watson Truth for Teachers)  Plan time for rest and plan time for practice.  Do you have 10 minutes in your day to FaceTime your child and practice?  How about getting up just 15 min. earlier with your child? or going to bed 15 min. earlier too?  Often shorter, more frequent practice sessions work well and 15 min. is better than no minutes at all.  Match the practice to your child’s attention span; yes, your child has high ability however their attention and focus is still developing.  Be patient with yourself and your child.  Forming a new habit of daily practice takes time and an average of 66 days according to the University College London How are Habits Formed Study

Begin today and find 5, 7 or 10 min. now to rest and to practice.  It will be different tomorrow.  Before you go to bed find minutes tomorrow and the next day to practice too.  Having a plan creates a space to work and planning time to rest is a catalyst for productivity.  You don’t wake up with more energy unless you’ve done something the day or night before to replenish it.  So plan your piano work and practice your plan!  Your child will thank you –and your teacher will too!



On and Off Stage

Whether you have dreams to play on a stage like this one at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City or just for your family at home there is one thing to remember.  Music.  Yes you’ve heard the word countless times referring to the songs that fill your playlist, the low noise punctuating your shopping trips and elevator rides, the background in your favorite movies, and the stuff that fills your heart and sings you to sleep.  Well what is music?  What does it matter?

Music is the organization of sound and silence –thanks to my bookshelf copy of Webster’s musical dictionary and my 101 music theory class at BYU.  Music is much more that just an order of sounds.  It utilizes both sides of the  brain, it helps us remember things, it supports our health, but it also allows us to feel.  In the case of good music I hope you’ve experienced a feeling of beauty and gratitude.  This blog is dedicated to good music –and even more than that, to teaching good music.

Here you will find uplifting tools and tips to foster musical growth as you create a love of good music.  I’ve played here at the Assembly Hall during a Suzuki Celebration with 5 pianos and the picture reminds me of how I felt during the performance.  A little nervous, mostly excited, overcome with tangible emotions, alert and alive, so thankful and un-hurried, un-stressed –is that a word?  I wanted the notes to play and play.  That’s what good music is like.  You can be an extraordinary musician on and off the stage.  So whatever your piano goals let good music be your guide and I’ll help you get there.




100 ways to praise a child

IMG_0196Want to make good music.  Start with good students.  Looking for the good and genuinely praising children for their strengths creates more strengths.  Try it for yourself.  Dr. Suzuki taught “What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.”

101 ways to praise a child

Learning to Listen

How many hours did you listen to your native language before you began to speak?  I know you’ve heard it on every Suzuki website for years.  Listen. Listen. Listen.  It’s the key to success –well one of the keys.  Of course the more your brain listens to something the easier it will be to let it come out through your fingers.  But just because something is simple doesn’t mean you always do it.

Download your Suzuki songs onto your phones, tablets, alexa –all your electronic devices.

Try playing your Suzuki songs at meals, or choretime, or playtime or bedtime; choose a set time each day and press play on whatever device is closest.

Try humming or singing your Suzuki songs; let your children correct you if you make any mistakes or intended wrong notes or words.

Skip past the twinkles; I know it’s not traditional but if you’re family members are not understanding of each and every twinkle song pounding through the house then skip to the pieces rather than have a mutiny on your hands.  You could ask your child to play the twinkles in person instead.  Playing twinkles in different registers and in different keys or with duets can also make them palatable to other household members.  They’ll come around.  Keep trying.  You may even try teaching the twinkles to each member of the family or better yet have your child teach them –they’re really very fun and simple rhythms to learn.

Find other recordings of your songs; its fun for your child to hear how someone else plays their songs.  Youtube, libraries, community performances and professional musicians all have wonderful recordings and concerts available.  Search the song at your next long checkout line, bank visit, dentist/dr appointment, DMV or the like.

Good luck listening!