Monday, February 6, 2017

Truman Walker: A Let's Play Music Foundation for Success

Every year, more and more young musicians graduate from Let's Play Music and go on to further musical pursuits. We love checking in to see what these young people are up to and today we caught up with superstar Truman Walker, winner in the 2012 LPM Composition Contest.

Meet Truman Walker
Truman took three years of Let's Play Music lessons with teacher Tina Gosney in Eagle, Idaho. After graduation, he continued to study piano lessons with local teachers Launette Shaw and then Suzy Clive. Truman says, "Suzy is a very accomplished pianist and an amazing teacher who has taught me a lot. Let's Play Music helped me with the basics so that I could learn really quickly when I started with Suzy and started learning more classical music."
Truman learned that when working on specific piano pieces, attending master classes with different experts like Brandon Stewart, Andrew von Oeyen, Dr. Renato Fabbro, and Jason Lyle Black  really helped him master his work and prepare for competitions.

Truman's consistent work and training has led him to success in several fun and challenging venues, including:

2013 Apple Blossom Festival Music Competition, Payette, Idaho - Junior Division, First Place. Original composition, Good King vs. Evil King.

Treasure Valley Music Teachers Association Sonatina Competition
      - 2014 - Level 4 - First Place
      - 2015 - Level 7 - First Place
      - 2016 - Level 10 - First Place
2016 Meridian Symphony Orchestra Young Artists Competition, Junior Division (10-14 yrs), Second Place, performing Concerto No. 8 in C Major by W.A. Mozart

2016 Spokane Piano Competition
-Baroque/Classical Division - First Place, Performing Sonata in E Major by Domenico Scarlatti
-Modern/Impressionist Division - First Place, Performing Bagatelle No. 10, Op No. 5 by Alexander Tcherepnin

Question and Answer with Truman

Gina: How do you imagine things might have turned out differently for you if you did not do LPM, if you had just gone straight to your piano lessons?

Truman: Music wouldn't be as fun. I wouldn't have been as excited for just piano lessons. LPM helped me learn how to love music and express myself. LPM helped me do things I wouldn't be able to do, like compose songs. Now I have composed five piano pieces and performed them at different recitals and events.

Gina: Do you ever get discouraged or bored or tired when you are practicing? 
Truman: YES! But I get over it by thinking about why I love it and what I want to accomplish. I also think about how practicing makes my pieces turn out better, and that gives me motivation to keep trying. I practice 2.5 hours every day.  I have to think about my goals a lot so I can keep working hard.

Gina: Wow! 2.5 hours. What does that practice routine look like?

Truman: Ms. Clive has helped me break my practice sessions down into 7 parts. First, I review my goals for the day and list what I want to finish during that practice session. Second, I play through some of my repertoire so I keep my pieces fresh. Third, I work on technique by doing Hannon exercises or "power fingers" to strengthen my fingers, hands and arms. Fourth, I do scales to learn and memorize key signatures. Fifth, I play through LDS Hymns so I can help with the music in my church congregation. Sixth, I practice sight reading and work on musical theory workbooks. Seventh, I get to work on memorizing and playing my major piano pieces that I am preparing for performances, competitions or just for fun to challenge myself.  

Gina: How do you go about writing a song?  
TrumanFirst I think of one main idea and the key signature I want to use. Then I think of things that sound original and I piece them together and smooth them out to make a song. I have written pieces about family trips we've taken and other things. I have also written a song for my older sister who accidentally hit a wrong chord in her piano practice one day. She liked the chord and asked me to write a song using that chord as the main idea. That was fun.
Now I have written 5 pieces. After the LPM composition, I continued to build on that song and it helped me win $50 at the Apple Blossom Festival. Here's a piece I composed called Living Water.

Gina:Can you tell me about one of your musical memories?
Truman: One Sunday night when I was 9 years-old, our family was sitting together in the piano room listening to me play. They started asking me about how I write songs and how the music comes to me. Then my older brother, David, and sisters, Anna Mae & Katelyn, started playing a game with me. They would give me an idea, like 'standing next to a waterfall' and I would play a mini-song for them that created a feeling like they were experiencing the idea they came up with. We did this for about an hour that night and it was a fun memory for our family.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sing it Again: Repetition in Teaching Music

Does your child have a favorite song, bedtime story, or movie he requests over and over? As adults, we are constantly seeking new stimulation, while children often crave just the opposite. 

Repeating activities helps neural pathways develop to create long-term memories. Repetition gives kids a sense of power, accomplishment, and belonging, so it's no surprise they crave repetition.

It's true in music class, too. When we play a new game in music class, there is often some trepidation as everybody wonders how it's going to work. The next time we play, students are more at ease. They know with confidence, "I belong here, I know what happens next, I know what we do in this game, and I am a success in this class."

Layered Repetition
Large doses of learning are squeezed into Let's Play Music classes by layering content. Yes, we may sing the same song for seven classes in a row, but each time, as the students become more proficient, we add new elements.

Students get the repetition they need for mastery and confidence, and teachers have a sneaky way to introduce new material in each and every class.  

Below are some possibilities that your teacher may focus on over the weeks, all within one song. Want to help us get the most from class time? Listen to the music at home so your child is already familiar with the song and lyrics before class...your teacher doesn't want to spend much time on that.
  • Notice the lyrics, what do they mean?
  • Listen carefully to the melody, can you recognize the common melodic patterns?  Can you play the melody on bells/ keyboard? Can we transcribe the melody?
  • Shall we sing the entire song using just solfege and handsigns instead of lyrics? Can we transpose to another key/ multiple keys?
  • Focus on the ostinato. Play it on bells/ keyboard while you sing.
  • Can you hear the harmony? What chords do you hear? Identify the chord progression.
  • Audiate parts of the song.
  • Listen to the rhythms, can you identify the bugs? 
  • How does this song make you feel, how do you want to move/dance? What words describe the type of sound or style of playing?
  • Notice the format of the song- do sections or phrases repeat? How are the sections different?
  • etc. 
The Rule of Seven

In Marketing, there exists a well-known idea that a prospect must see or hear about a product at least seven times before they'll take action and buy it. The point is, the  ability to generally recognize something is strengthened with multiple encounters.

This is why, in music class, we will also present several songs or games for each concept covered (common melodic pattern, common rhythmic pattern, minor tonality songs, common chord progressions, legato vs. staccato, etc.)  Experiencing each concept in multiple, slightly different musical examples gives students a chance to better recognize and isolate the element.  

Spaced Repetition & Memory
When we learn a new bit of information on Day 0, we all start to forget the information right away. It's a bummer, but that's just how the brain works. Our brains need cues to get the message, "hey, this stuff is worth remembering."  

The forgetting curve looks like an exponential decay curve. 

Each time we review what we know (and start to forget again right away), the decay curve is a little bit flatter.  Each time we can allow longer periods between review, and we can remember just a little bit longer before we start to forget. 

The trick for optimizing learning is to plan repetition of activities and information so that the reviews coincide with the intervals of time when students are starting to forget their facts.  With organized intervals of repetition, we can study smarter, not longer.

That's why we sing a new Let's Play Music song or game in every class, several times, when it is first presented. Then it comes back (less frequently) for us to review and sing.

Remember Every Song
If you want to study smart, try creating your own spaced repetition learning: review pieces of information that you are retaining well less often than pieces that you are not remembering well. 

Here's quick piano example: Choose the piano songs you want to review. How about every song I have memorized. Attempt to play through the songs. Based on how accurately you can remember the song, decide if you will review it again tomorrow, next week, next month, in 4 months, or next year.

As part of your routine, each time you play piano, include some work on a new piece you are trying to memorize and include a play-through, from your schedule of a piece that you already know. If your list is short and you're having fun, you might play more songs than are on your list (playing memorized songs is really fun.)

The importance of the list is to remind you of your songs- if you wait too long, you'll forget what you worked hard to memorize in the first place. 

Remember, the goal is to practice again just as you are about to forget, and that happens at increasing intervals each time.  By making it part of your routine to play through one memorized song (it's fun-you won't mind), you'll retain every song you've ever memorized, forever! 

Have fun!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher  

Monday, January 2, 2017

Instrument Families: Brass, Woodwind, Percussion, Strings

Last week was the last Sound Beginnings class of the semester, which meant I had the joy of hosting a very special Instrument Petting Zoo day.  Even ambitious parents who want to take their 2-4 year old to the orchestra know that toddlers aren't likely to sit through an orchestral concert. So, unless the child has someone playing an instrument at home, this class is a special chance to hear the sounds of real instruments up close and personal.

And, for the first time ever, all four of my own children happened to be home on a school break, which meant they played piano, ukulele, violin, trombone, saxophone, french horn and trumpet samples for my class. Although the variety of instruments around the world is huge, there are four categories/families of instruments found in the orchestra. Each family creates sound in a similar way. This interactive online orchestra lets you hear each family play its sound- just click on the section you'd like to sample.

Brass Instruments

It's pretty clear to see why the brass instruments naturally go together: they're all made of metal.

Trombone, tuba, sousaphone, trumpet, and french horn are a few brass instruments. 

But that's not the main reason these instruments are a family. I like to point out to my students that these instruments all make sound in a similar way. Yes, you put air into the instruments (aerophones), but not just by huffing and blowing. Brass instruments require the player to buzz the lips.  The embouchure (the way in which a player applies the mouth) is a mouth with tight corners and loose lips in the center, creating a buzz that can be adjusted higher or lower in pitch. I invite all my students to experiment with buzzing, like with this short video to get the feel.

Adjusting the buzz/embouchure creates an overtone series.  A bugle, the simplest brass instrument, has no valves or slides.  So, different notes are produced by adjusting the embouchure and the notes are limited to the overtone series.

Other brass instruments have a few valves or a slide added, allowing the musician to play all notes of the chromatic scale. And what about the saxophone? It's made of brass for sure, but I never put it in the brass family because it is not a 'buzzed' instrument. Nowadays there are even brass instruments made of plastic. A pBone or pTrumpet is lightweight, durable, and kid-friendly (that means it doesn't get dents) but it is STILL a brass instrument with no brass to be found.

Because the embouchure is adjustable, much like the vocal cords, students need to have a good ear to know if they are hitting the correct pitch. Complete musicianship programs like Let's Play Music help develop the ear and prepare a student for success with brass.  Here's a fabulous trumpet solo with some close-ups of the finger action to inspire youngsters who love brass:


The woodwinds are clearly also aerophones (require air to play), but they present a lot of variety in look and sound. Bassoon, saxophone, piccolo, oboe, flute, and clarinet are a few woodwinds.

The name of this family leads everyone to wonder, "Are all of the woodwinds actually made of wood?"

The answer is that, yes, long ago all of these instruments were actually made of wood.  Over time, some of these instruments have been replaced with metal or plastic. And then, around 1840, the saxophone was invented and considered part of this family because (as you now know) it just didn't belong in the brass family. 

All sounds are created from vibrations.  While brass instruments rely on the player's lip buzz to create the vibration, woodwinds generate vibration when air travels across a thin piece of wood, the reed, which vibrates. The clarinet and saxophone have one reed, the oboe and bassoon have two reeds, and the flute and recorder have no reeds (the air vibrates along the length of the tube).

This 7-minute video by House of Sound explains to kids how sound waves are set up in various woodwinds. You might enjoy watching their other videos, too.


Strings are chordophones (make sound by vibrating strings).  Violin, viola, cello, bass, harp, and guitar are a few instruments from this family. The strings are made of nylon, steel, or gut, and the bodies of the instruments are hollow inside to allow the vibrations to resonate

Strings are played most often by drawing a bow across the strings. The bow handle is made of wood and the strings are horsehair! Musicians can also pluck the strings with their fingers or tap the strings with the wooden side of the bow.

The Piano Guys love finding ways to get interesting sounds from a cello in unconventional ways. In this video, the deep bass drum sound is a bump on the body of the cello with a little help from some effects. The shaker sound was created by Steve rubbing rosin on his bow. The record scratch is Steve scratching a quarter on the strings. Check out all of Piano Guys videos and our Piano Guys interview, too.


Percussion instruments are idiophones (makes sound when hit), or membranophones (makes a sound through the vibration of a stretched skin). Others make sounds when shaken or scraped. The worldwide list of percussion instruments is huge, but includes bongos, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, cymbals, tambourine, maracas, gong, chimes, celesta, and piano.

Did you catch that I added piano to the percussion family? It's true that the piano has vibrating strings inside, so could possibly be considered a string instrument. This amazing brief animation shows the hammer action of the piano keys. When you press each key, a hammer taps the string and sets it to vibrating. When you release the key, a soft pad comes into place to stop the vibration. Because the instrument is played primarily by striking with varying levels of force, I think it fits best into the percussion family.

Piano falls into a sub-group of pitched (tuned) percussion instruments. Other instruments that can be tuned to play notes include ones with lots of notes like glockenspiel, marimba and bells, or ones with only a few notes, like timpani.

There are thousands of percussion instruments, and you have some with you right now! Hand-clapping and finger-snapping are percussion instruments, too. A child's percussive body is the best first instrument to master, so we encourage lots of patting, tapping, and dancing as a foundational skill for learning to play all of the other instruments you've read about in this post. I took my kids to see STOMP LIVE and we loved how they made percussive music from found everyday objects. Check out this video that takes hand-clapping and foot-stomping to an amazing level:


So there it is. Now you know about the four families of music, grouped together based on how they make sounds. Now, if you had four families of people from different places, each family would speak with its own accent. 

In music, we have timbre (pronounced tamber). Timbre is the character or quality of musical sound. If you play the same tune on a banjo and on a guitar (like in the tune dueling banjos) you'd easily be able to tell the instruments apart because each has a different timbre.

Timbre is often referred to as tone color, an analogy that makes good sense. If each instrument has its own color, and instruments from the same family have similar colors, the composer can paint even more colors/sounds by layering and blending the colors. Or he can paint two contrasting colors/sounds right next to each other, to make them boldly stand out. To make a trumpet melody really stand out, the strings (not other brass) could be chosen to play the harmony.

Tone color/ timbre plays a very important role when the music is written to evoke specific feelings or represent specific ideas or events, so composers carefully select instruments to paint you that picture. 

A fun finale for today's post is to listen to the story Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev and notice how carefully each instrument was chosen to represent the characters in the story. The cat is a clarinet, grandpa is a bassoon, the duck is an oboe, the bird is a flute, and the wolf is a french horn. Have fun!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher