How a church musician can facilitate a smooth transition to a new pastor or priest

June and July are typical times for changes in pastors and priests, depending on denomination. This can be a challenging time for the church, as each pastor and priest brings with them their own habits and expectations for the how the church service should run. Many also have ideas on the music used within the church service. This can include what hymns can and cannot be used, built in “think time” or zero silent time, how long preludes should run before service (if any at all,) and if hymns should or should not be announced.

As a church musician, I think that one of my duties is to help the church service flow seamlessly from one thing to the next, regardless of if the pastor is new, substituting, or has been there for a decade. Over the past 20+ years of playing in traditional worship services in Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran churches, I have developed a few habits that help smooth the transition to new or substitute pastors and priests. And while there are bound to be some hiccups as you get used to the new pastor or priest, this can help make them smaller.

Have a simple conversation with the pastor or priest

The first thing I make sure to have a simple conversation with the person about their expectations. I tell them how much time I play for prelude and depending on the church, that I will stop at a specific time. There are also a set of questions that I ask, and I write myself a note to make sure I remember to ask these questions – otherwise I’ll be 5 minutes into my preludes and realize I forgot! The following are the questions I ask.

Lutheran Church

For the Lutheran church I have just two questions that I ask the pastor.

  1. Do you announce the hymns and different liturgical songs? If yes, you know that you can wait for the announcement. If no, you know you are in charge of starting the songs.
  2. Will you be chanting/singing the liturgy? This is only important if the liturgical setting you use has parts for the pastor.
  3. Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Catholic Church

For the Catholic church I have some questions for the priest.

  • Will the cantor announce the hymns?
  • How will you let us know you are ready for Mass to start and the Gathering song to begin?
    • This is especially important if you are playing in a balcony and cannot see them gathering in the back to begin Mass. One church had a light that would turn on when they were ready – but it was behind me so I had someone else keep an eye on it. Another would have the priest wave through their side door. Another wanted me to just watch the time and start playing exactly at a specific time.
  • Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Be Flexible

Be flexible. Remember that just as you have habits and things you’re used to as a church musician, each pastor or priest has their own habits they bring with them. Be willing to make minor adjustments. Write yourself notes – use highlighters and sticky notes if need be so you remember whatever it is that is different.

Be forgiving

I tend to the be the musician that has nightmares about the mistakes I’ve made in the past. Over the years when I have commented about the mistakes to members of the congregation, most say they didn’t notice the mistakes. So when I inevitably make mistakes, I try to remind myself that most likely, people didn’t notice and to give myself grace.

Transitions can be tough on the congregations, pastors and musicians. But one thing we can do as musicians is to think through things that could change, talk to the new pastor or priest about expectations, be flexible, and be forgiving of yourself while everyone gets used to the new rhythm of the services.

Photo by Kati Hoehl on Unsplash

Piano in the Park: A unique alternative to traditional piano recitals

Traditional piano recitals have been a part of my life either as a student or a teacher for over twenty years. While there are wonderful aspects to traditional piano recitals, there are some drawbacks as well. The main one being that some students really suffer form performance anxiety. As a teacher, I want my students to be successful and find joy in connecting with their music. How could I give my students a positive experience and environment to share their music with others?

Drawbacks of Traditional Piano Recitals

The first negative about piano recitals is the anxiety it can cause students, resulting in negative feelings towards piano lessons in general. I remember the anxiety recitals caused me as a student trying to make sure I had no memory glitches. For years, performance equaled anxiety. As a teacher, I have seen the same affect on my students. Some students get so anxious they have decided it’s either quit lessons, or opt out of recitals. Over the years I have tried to lessen the stress of recitals by making sheet music allowed, letting students have control over music selection, helping students prepare more adequately, and even allowing students to opt out . But for some students the very act of sitting in front of people, with everyone staring at them can be overwhelming.

Secondly, recitals can be stressful for parents who are trying to keep siblings quiet for any length of time. I am a parent of young children, and I know this is hard.

Music as the Focus or in the Background?

Last year while reading “Musicking” by Christopher Small for one of my masters in music education class, I came upon the following.

The silence and apparent passivity of audiences at symphony concerts deserves a little more attention. Historically it is a recent practice…Aristocratic listeners [of the eighteenth-century] felt free to treat the musicians and the performance as background to their other activities, to listen attentively when they felt like it and to talk, eat and drink…

Christopher Small, “Musicking” p. 43

I read this multiple times. Up until this point, I had always thought piano recitals and symphonies had the music as the center of focus. But historically, music was background noise at social events. Their experience and interaction with music would have been completely different than ours. Back then, applause would occur in the middle of a piece if someone really was impressed — much like what happens during a ballet when audiences clap after an impressive move. Now, we only interact with the music after it is completed. This thought rolled around in my mind, and eventually I came up with a different model for sharing our piano music that would allow families to relax more, and students to not be the primary focus of the attendees which would hopefully reduce performance anxiety.

Piano in the Park

My main goal for this event was for piano families to gather for a party with yard games and pizza, and students providing background music. We were being historically accurate!

Promotional image I sent via text to piano families the day before the event.

Structure and Considerations

  • Food: CostCo Pizza, cookies (CostCo bakery) and beverages were provided. Families each paid $10 to help cover the cost.
  • Length of time: 1.5 hours
  • Location: Local park pavilion with a large open, flat grass area for yard games.
    • Only one small pavilion by the large open grass area at our local park had an electrical outlet. I had called the city to ask if I could reserve it and they said it was a first come first serve area. I forgot to check if the outlet actually worked. Big mistake. We plugged in the speaker 30 minutes before the event was to start and there wasn’t any power. Luckily, another pavilion was available and we moved over. It didn’t have much space to play games, but no one seemed to mind. Moral of the story: check the outlet
  • Entertainment: playground, yard games (families brought whatever yard games they owned to share), piano music
  • Piano music: Students were given 15 minutes each to fill with music. Most students played 6-10 pieces! I thought kids would just choose 2-3 pieces, but all of them were excited to pick out and play lots of pieces.
  • Equipment needed: keyboard, extension cord, aux cord and adapters for between the keyboard and aux cord, small speaker/guitar amp, working outlet (I forgot to check this and we had to move last minute to a new spot)
  • Announcement: I did make sure to announce that the purpose of the music was to be background music, and we would love if people would be able to talk with each other and play games. I felt this would be necessary since everyone was so used to the traditional piano recital etiquette.

Free Piano Party Checklist for Teachers

For teachers considering this event, here is a free Piano Party checklist.



This was by far my favorite event. I enjoyed being able to listen to a wide variety of music from the students, play lots of duets, play games with my students and talk with the parents. Parents and students also enjoyed it and expressed their satisfaction. One student declared that from now on, all our piano recitals need to be a party in the park! I’d call that a success.


Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan Univ. Press.

If interested in this book, purchase it here on Amazon.

Non-locomotor steady beat for internalization

Why move to the steady beat?

One of the most foundational concept for any music student is the need to internalize the steady beat. One effective way is to simply move to the beat. Well-known music pedagogues like Orff, Kodaly, Gordon, Dalcroze teach movement in different ways, but they all believed movement to music is essential in music education (Rose). It allows students to experience an abstract concept, and must take place before the theoretical learning. Steady beat internalization must be worked on consistently and become accurate before we can expect any kind of rhythmic accuracy. Phyllis Weikart in her book Teaching Movement and Dance says that”…rhythmic movement requires that a person be able to use space and time effectively. The ability to feel and indicate the beat (beat awareness) and the ability to walk to the beat (beat competency) create basic timing ability. Beginners have to use their basic timing ability and build beat coordination skill to achieve rhythmic competency” (5).

First stage of Movement

Weikart identifies the first stage of movement as nonlocomotor movement. It means the students will stay in one spot. This includes standing and sitting activities.

So What? …How to use this in the Piano Studio or Early Childhood Music Classes

In my early childhood classes and beginning piano lessons, we tend to pat our knees to the beat a lot (single bilateral symmetrical movements). But sometimes, I like to change it up. Over the past fifteen years I have compiled a list from workshops and classes of all the different non-locomotor steady beat motions presented. These presenters include Lynn Kleiner, Denise Gagne, Jo Kirk, Lisa Simmelink, as well as many others. List of Non-Locomotor Steady Beat Motions Please enjoy this free list of non-locomotor steady beat motions.  I hope that it can help refresh the non-locomotor steady beat motions you use in your music studio or classroom. CLICK TO DOWNLOADS: Non-Locomotor Steady Beat Motions Build the foundation of steady beat, and see how it affects a student’s rhythmic ability. Leave a comment on other non-locomotor motions you use to help students feel and internalize the steady beat.
Rose, P. (2016). Effects of movement, tempo, and gender on steady beat performance of kindergarten children. International Journal of Music Education, 34(1), 104–115. Weikart, Phyllis. Teaching Movement and Dance: A Sequential Approach to Rhythmic Movement. 3rd edition. 1989. High/Scope Press. Ypsilanti, MI

Piano studio setup for online lessons

The Covid-19 pandemic has required piano teachers from around the world to adapt quickly from in-person traditional lessons to online piano lessons. For  teachers like myself who had zero experience teaching online piano lessons, it brought some challenges. But these challenges were worth working through to ensure the safety of my students and their families.

When I transitioned to online lessons I made changes in my studio setup as well as how to keep track of assignments. Every organization change was simple so I can keep it up. Everything I use is movable so at the end of teaching we can use this room as a family room, and quick to setup because time is valuable. This post is going to cover the following

(1) Using Google Presentation to keep track of assignments

(2) Organizing piano books used most often during lesson

(3) Organizing individual student materials if they are separate sheets of paper

(4) Studio Setup during lessons

(1) Google Presentations as an Assignment Tracker

During in-person lessons I filled out assignment papers for students to use at home. It was a simple and effective method to remember what they were to practice. I needed a way to do this with online lessons that I could fill out during lesson and the parents could access and print out for students to use as a guide for their practice.

This led me to create a Google Presentation. Here are the details.

    • Slide size changed to 8.5″ x 11″ so it would print on a normal size paper.
    • One presentation per student.
    • Presentation shared with the parent/student.
    • A simple table that doubles as a place for me to type out instructions and the students to mark off practice.
How it is used during the lesson
    • At the beginning of each lesson, I open the student’s presentation and duplicate last week’s slide. This creates a new slide at the top of the slideshow. This becomes the current week’s slide. I replace things as they are ready to move on, or keep them on and change their practice goals if they need another week.
    • Background color indicates if it is current week or a past assignment sheet.
      • Background of Current week’s slide = Green
      • All past Assignment Slides = Blue.
      • This allows the parent to easily see which slide to print. Parents can choose “print black and white”. Once printed, the student can then mark which days they practice the piece.

I am happy to share this setup with you. In order to use it, you must click on the link below. Then go to FILE >> Make a copy. This will copy the presentation onto your own Google Drive. Once it is there, you can make any changes.

Click here to view the Google Presentation.

(2) Organizing piano books and materials

Book organization

Organization of things is something that does not come naturally to me. Any organization system I try to implement needs to be simple and should require almost no time or effort to keep it up.

I’ve tried bins with all my piano books separated. It took me a day to sort and put things away. And didn’t last very long. (The only thing still separated currently are wedding piano books because I use them about three times a year)

This three-shelf rolling cart has three separate categories.

  1. Top shelf is where I put my computer that I type on during lessons.
  2. Middle shelf is Piano Safari books (It’s my go-to piano curriculum that almost all of my students are currently in.)
  3. Bottom shelf holds everything else.

As you can see I don’t have a lot of books to keep track of so this works for me. If you had a lot of books this may not work or would work with changes. Top shelf you could put in some book bins and have books standing upright if you needed more organization.

Organization of Other items used

Some other items I use constantly stay on the top of my piano.

  • 11 x 14 magnetic dry erase marker board
  • dry erase markers and eraser (or a lone sock, depending on if I lost the eraser)
  • circle magnetic dots we use as a concrete way of showing where the beats fall.
  • Large-numbered Clock. It has the date and a USB port to charge a phone if needed.
(3) Organizing loose student papers

My own piano teacher showed me this idea. The inclined file sorter holds loose student papers, including if a student sends something they want to work on (free sheet music) or I need to print off sheet music for them, this is where it goes. Then, I can pull it out as needed. If I have studio copies of the sheet music that I print off and the parent needs to stop by and get it, I can place it here in their folder to grab easily.

(4) Studio set up during a lesson

(The first thing I noticed when I uploaded this picture is that the vacuum cleaner, a pack of toilet paper, and a random folded up area rug that we haven’t decided what to do with are in the background. Isn’t this picture just true to real life when you’re busy raising a family, taking classes, homeschooling, and teaching piano?)

This set up takes me less than five minutes to complete. It really is so simple.

  • Laptop 1 is used for FaceTime/Skype/Zoom. It is placed on the music stand for ease of moving around the view. I move it so students can see my large dry erase board. When not in use, the music stand just gets put up next to the piano.
  • Laptop 2 sits on top of the rolling cart and is open to table of contents of different versions of the books that I have and Google Drive for my assignment pages so I can type directly into them. The rolling cart holds all the books I need so I can easily reach them.
  • The piano bench is pulled away from the piano and doubles as a catch-all and beverage holder. Who else usually has a couple drinks — coffee and water? Or tea and water?
Small changes make a big difference

I made these changes slowly over the semester as I reflected on the deficiencies of my setup. There will likely be more changes to follow as I have announced that all lessons will be online for the 2020-2021 school year.

What changes have you made to the set up and organization of your piano studio so that piano lessons run smoothly and all studio materials stay in place.

Group Piano Class – Ideas from Spring 2019

Students experience the joy of music through folk dancing.

Group piano class is one of my favorite events of the year. About six of my students are able to make it, and we gather in my basement studio. During this hour, we enjoy each other’s company, listen to each other’s pieces, play a couple group music games, and folk dance.

The students usually bound out of the house with big grins on their faces, and anxiously await the next group piano class. I think it’s because I usually pick a rather lively folk dance, but maybe that’s my bias talking. I used to teach in a general music classroom and would jump in and do the folk dance if someone needed a partner. It has always been a favorite of mine. Continue reading “Group Piano Class – Ideas from Spring 2019”

Creating an Effective Progress Report

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I am always looking for ways to make something better. Perhaps it comes from all those years of piano lessons where we ask ourselves the question “What can I do differently next time to make it better, more musical?”

My latest project has been to create a progress report that was considerably better than the one I tried one last year. Last year I just wrote in narrative form what each student had done throughout the year, along with things they were doing well and things they would be working on. It was too cumbersome for me (it took over an hour to do fill one out), and I don’t know if any of the parents looked at them because it was too much to read. Continue reading “Creating an Effective Progress Report”

Steady Beat Part 2: Beyond the Metronome – Movement Activities to Establish Steady Beat with Piano Students

These are bean bags I made for steady beat games.

Steady beat used to be a concept that I used to assume all students just kind of knew. I didn’t understand the deep necessity for students experiencing it, and how a strong sense of the steady beat would improve other areas of a student’s performance in piano.

I talked more about this in the importance of establishing a steady beat with piano students in the first post of this series. You can read it here: Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students.

Today’s post will detail the different steady beat activities that I use frequently in my studio. I am a firm believer that when teaching music to young children, we must first allow them to experience a new concept before asking them to intellectualize it (Choksy, The Kodaly Method I: Comprehensive Music Education. 3rd Edition. p10). Because of this there is always a couple steady beat activities in every lesson for the first few years they take lessons. Continue reading “Steady Beat Part 2: Beyond the Metronome – Movement Activities to Establish Steady Beat with Piano Students”

Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students

My first two years as a classroom music teacher, I had my students do rhythm drills. We started with rhythms of half and whole notes, while students used traditional counting (1-2-3-4). From one lesson to the next, they could not accurately clap the correct rhythms and count. They could tell me that a quarter note got one beat and a half note got two, but there was something missing. It was frustrating for my students and for me. I was failing them somehow, but I could not understand why.

My music education experience centered on telling students about music. We explained it intellectually and then expected the students to be able to do it. Continue reading “Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students”

Adaptations in the Piano Studio

Even though I graduated with a music education degree, there are some things that you just don’t fully understand on their importance until it smacks you in the face while you are teaching.

For me, learning adaptations for students with disabilities was more of an abstract concept than something I fully grasped. But when I was faced with teaching multiple students with common disabilities like dyslexia, I decided it was time for me to find resources to consult, and learn how to adapt teaching music.

In the past I have had a couple students with learning disabilities who became frustrated in music lessons and stopped. I find this to be a failure on my part and I am bound and determined to do a better job at adapting music so that every student feels the joy of learning music.

Continue reading “Adaptations in the Piano Studio”

Catholic Mass “Cheat Sheet” for New Musicians

I grew up in a Methodist church where the only song we sang unannounced was the Doxology. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Then I started playing at Catholic Mass, where there are so many songs that musicians know when to start simply based on the words said by the priest. It was so nerve-wracking starting out and I made so many mistakes. I definitely know the Mass so much better than I used to, but kind of wish I had had a “cheat sheet” to refer back to when I was starting. Continue reading “Catholic Mass “Cheat Sheet” for New Musicians”