Composer of the month – Kevin Olson

IMG_6544.JPGWelcome back! I missed March already (where did the time go?!) so here is the composer for April…Kevin Olson!


Dr. Kevin Olson is a pianist, composer, and teacher in the piano faculty at Utah State University. Dr. Olson began composing at 5 years old, and is the Composer in Residence at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP). I met Dr. Olson after a session at a music teachers conference in March 2017.

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Composer of the month – Carol Matz

IMG_6646 (1).JPGComposer for February…Carol Matz!


Carol Matz is a composer, arranger, and teacher.  She has written over 300 published titles for piano students, and presents workshops around the world. I attended Carol Matz’s workshop in March 2017, and was very impressed by her passion and enthusiasm for sharing music with students. You can read her interview here.

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Composer of the month – Wendy Stevens

Starting off 2018…the composer of the month is Wendy Stevens!

Wendy Stevens (L) and I (R)


Wendy Stevens is a pianist, teacher, composer and clinician.  She has a Bachelor of Music in Piano Pedagogy and Masters of Music in Theory and Composition from Wichita State University. She publishes blogs regularly on her website . She offers many helpful ideas for teachers to teach creatively and writes music that is pedagogical, yet fun and impressive. She supports teachers by posting many free resources on her website and is especially creative with rhythmic ideas. She has even written a book, “Rhythm Explorations”.

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Composer of the month – Martha Mier

The composer for December is…Martha Mier!

Martha Mier


Martha Mier is a pianist, piano teacher, composer, and clinician and currently resides in Florida. I met her briefly at MTNA (Music Teacher’s National Association) in Baltimore in March 2017 as she was presenting newly composed material. Her “Jazz, Rag & Blues” series are hugely popular with many of my students, as it introduces students to the idiom in an accessible and musical way. Below are a few of my favourites:

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Composer of the month – Tom Gerou

Composer for November…Tom Gerou!IMG_6643.JPG


Tom Gerou is a composer, arranger, clinician, and Vice President of Keyboard Production at Alfred Music. He has a Master of Music in Composition from Yale University and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California. Gerou has over 150 publications and is an active member of MTNA (Music Teachers National Association).

Gerou presented at MTNA 2017 in Baltimore, introducing new music.


Popular Pieces

Level 3: Delightful Dreams

From Tom’s “Piece by Piece” series:

Level 5: You and I

Listen carefully, and you can hear a dialogue between two people (“you” and “I”): The first person starts with a 4-part chorale. At around 0:30, notice the change in style. Around 0:40, the chorale-style returns, then the flowing melodic section soon returns, transforming into the chorale style at the end.


Level 7: A Hint of Jazz

Here is Tom playing a few of his pieces from his “Piece by Piece” series:



How To Raise a Smart Kid – Part 3

In this third and final post on “How to Raise a Smart Kid”, I delve into the 5 factors  that lead to more successful academic achievement in kids, this time specifically in private music lessons, to determine what makes a “smart musician”.


  • Attitude toward education

Examine your attitude toward music lessons. Assuming this is something you want to work at, know that a mastered skill is actually built up from many small steps, and that mastery of one skill leads to mastery of more complicated technical aspects. For example, in order to play a scale, students must first be able to play with balanced, slightly rounded fingers. The wrist must be supple and free of tension. Next, students must use their thumb to cross slightly under the hand to reach the keys, aided by a loose wrist. Then, students learns to easily cross their third and fourth finger over the hand. After the students master playing a scale up and down an octave in one hand, they learn how to do it with the other hand, and then hands together. They must listen carefully for a clear, even tone, with a slight crescendo when ascending, and a slight decrescendo when descending. Finally, they learn to play the scale in more than one octave, in parallel motion and in contrary motion.

Successful students believe that no concept or skill is “too hard” or “impossible” to grasp. Instead, they assume that they just haven’t grasped it yet, but with enough correct practice and time, they will eventually learn it.  


  • Drive

Persevering and being disciplined in approaching learning can be found in all successful students.  Learning a skill takes time and energy. If learning the piano is a priority, students must find the time in their schedule to devote to this. If piano is 7th or 8th on the list of things to complete during the week, you can be sure that progress will be slow, and that lessons will soon be dropped. Behind drive is the belief that if music is important, one makes the time for it. Parents must be involved in setting up their children’s schedule to allow time for daily, effective practice, and other musical activities.


  • Highly educated and competent teachers

Find the best teacher you can afford. Highly educated teachers have invested in their education (many possess degrees or diplomas in music), but more importantly, continue to invest in their training by attending workshops, conferences, masterclasses, and reading on the latest research on teaching. They are not afraid to try new methods and ideas to help students learn. Find teachers who are interested in learning and also contribute to their community. Ask if your teacher specializes in teaching young children, or adults. After being a part of a professional music teaching community for over 6 years, I can’t imagine teaching without the support of other music professionals, learning from workshops and conferences, and the various musical opportunities they provide for myself and my students.


  • Parental involvement

It is the parent’s job to make music an important part of their child’s education. If their child has weak math skills, the parent will not likely say they don’t have to learn math. Instead, the parent will hire tutors, and enroll their kids in afterschool programs to help them learn. There is a belief that they will eventually “get it”.  Sometimes there can be dips in their child’s interest in music (namely, practicing). Parents who understand this as a normal phase strive to encourage their child’s continuation, and let the teacher know that their child is becoming disinterested in practicing. Together, the parents, teacher, and child can work together to find ways to enliven and challenge the child to continue.  Also, parents can get involved by asking their child(ren) about their lessons. They can ask them to play their latest pieces, take them to concerts and recitals while engaging their child by asking them what they liked or didn’t like about the performances, etc. Keeping an open dialogue about music is key (pun alert!)


  • Participating in events with other students

Learning to play a musical instrument is often a lonely task. Hours are spent by themselves practicing and learning. However, when students come together to experience and perform music for each other, they realize they are not alone. They can see what others are capable of, which may motivate them to practice harder and more intelligently. They see that others also go through the same thing, getting nervous when performing in public, etc. and this reassures them that they are “normal” and is common.

As an ORMTA member, my students have access to their events, such as auditions for scholarships, participation in music composition competitions, workshops, master classes and recitals. The more they participate in these events outside of their piano lessons, the more they realize the world around them is steeped in music, and there are many others just like them, learning.


That’s it for this 3-part series on “smart kids”.  Interested in trying the PISA for yourself to see how you do?




Bassiri, Mehmaz. 2017.  Canada Has Homework If It Wants To Be An ‘Education Superpower’. Last modified August 8, 2017


Clemens, Jason and Van Pelt, Deani Neven and Emes, Joel. 2015. The Fraser Institute.


Coughlan. Sean. 2017. How Canada became an education superpower.  Last modified August 2, 2017.


Coughlan, Sean. 2016. Pisa tests: Singapore top in global education rankings. Last modified December 6, 2016.


Frey, Susan. 2015. Study says reading aloud to children, more than talking, builds literacy. Last updated July 8, 2015.


Gordon, Andrea. 2017. Black students hindered by academic streaming, suspensions: Report. Last modified April 24, 2017.


Kane, Libby. September 2017. Chinese children crush Americans in math thanks to a mindset Americans only display in one place: sports. September 7, 2017.


NationMaster. “Education: Singapore and United States compared”. Retrieved from


OECD. Results by Country. Last accessed August 24, 2017.


OECD. Education Spending. Last accessed August 24, 2017.


Ripley, Amanda. 2013 . The Smartest Kids in the World.  Simon & Schuster


Statistics Canada. 2016. Generation status: Canadian-born children of immigrants

Last modified September 15, 2016.

Composer of the month – Wynn-Anne Rossi

Hello everyone!

And in a blink of an eye, September has zoomed by!  I’ve skipped September because I had a baby on the last day of August, and I’m starting to get back into the groove of blogging. Here is October’s composer:

Composer for October…Wynn-Anne Rossi!

L to R: Wynn Anne-Rossi, me


Wynn-Anne Rossi is a composer, pianist and music educator.  She has over 100 publications for piano, voice, chamber groups, and orchestra. She is an American who resides in Minnesota, USA. Rossi travels across America and overseas, giving workshops lectures, and masterclasses. Rossi offers composition residencies in Minnesota public schools: she teaches composition to students, and composes specifically for the class.

I attended Wynn-Anne Rossi’s “Me Talk Music!” workshop in March 2017. Her presentation was about how to approach composition in young children, especially those without a deep musical background. She starts them on developing their imagination through tone poems – descriptive, instrumental music. For example, a tone poem about a storm may feature little pitter patters of sound to mimic raindrops, followed with a booming bass for thunder, and perhaps a glissando to represent lightning.

Popular Pieces

Level 2: Atacama Desert (from “Musica Latina)

The Atacama desert begins in southern Peru and extends into Chile. It is notable as the driest desert in the world, with an average of 1mm of rain per year. Listen to the music below, and imagine a desolate yet majestic expanse:

Level 7: Arctic Moon (from “An Alaskan Tour”)


Here is an interview with Rossi about her publication “Musica Latina”:


Wynn-Anne Rossi’s music is modern yet evocative. Her music appeals to a wide audience of students, and they enjoy her accessible music.

How To Raise a Smart Kid – Part 2

I first started this series several weeks ago, trying to understand the variation in PISA test scores of kids in different countries around the world. I started with Part 1, looking at possible explanations behind why some countries, such as Singapore, ranked the highest in the world, and why the USA, a wealthy first-world country, lagged behind in Math, Science, and Reading.

In Part 2, we examine the 5 factors that DO lead to more successful academic achievement in kids:


  • Attitude toward education


In the latest PISA, South Korea’s rank dropped slightly but still ranked in the top 8 in the world.

The attitude of many students and teachers and parents is that they understand it is important to master difficult concepts, and that this mastery is the result of hard work, not innate talent. As a result, they continue to work hard instead of believing they are “no good at science”. They have high expectations of themselves.  Attitude, rather than ability, was a high predictor of success.

Business Insider notes that Chinese kids tend to do better than American kids due to a “growth mindset“. This is the attitude that with hard work, anything is possible. Libby Kane writes American kids tend to have a growth mindset toward sports, not academics.

Researchers in Pennsylvania in 2002 also looked at persistence and motivation: students who completed more of an optional survey after the PISA tended to predict that they did better on the PISA. This showed that conscientiousness mattered. These students tended to have a sense of responsibility, organization, and getting the job done. A high regard toward education leads us to the second factor that leads to higher achievement:


  • Drive


South Korea is an extreme example of this, to the point where their children’s work-life balance is heavily skewed and cause unnecessary stress in children. Because of the fierce competition to get into the country’s top universities (and thereby nearly guaranteeing a higher salary compared to other people doing the same job!), the students and parents are highly motivated to try to achieve top marks. In South Korea, the majority of children attend for-profit, private tutoring academies after school. These “hagwon” are so popular that the government in each city and province enforce curfews (to ensure the children receive adequate sleep!) and even offer financial rewards for tips leading to hagwon that ignore the curfew. Singapore parents also often bring their kids for extra tuition outside of school.

An attitude that education matters, that getting a good education will lead to higher education, then a good job, is important.


  • Highly educated and competent teachers


Teachers in Finland are highly educated. All general education teachers have a minimum of a Master’s degree (even pre-school teachers!) and daycare centres generally employ those with a Bachelor’s degree. All teachers continue yearly training. It is highly competitive to get into Finland’s rigorous teacher-training colleges. As a result, Finland’s teachers are highly equipped to handle the challenges of teaching and to help students learn. Since teachers are highly competent, they receive more autonomy in their teaching, and require less supervision.


  • Parental Involvement


Researchers found that simply volunteering for school events such as field trips and fundraisers and attending parent-teacher meetings had little effect on student’s academic score. It was the type of parental involvement that was important.

Korean and Finnish parents tended to see themselves as coaches, training and pushing their kids to succeed, not to protect them from hard work and strain. They saw education as one of their jobs.

Meanwhile, American parents tended to be more like cheerleaders, praising their children regardless of achievement. Typically, American parents place more importance on free play, and protecting their child’s self-esteem through insulating their children from competition and failure. They encourage sports as a way of boosting their child’s self-esteem, rather than pushing them in their academic schoolwork.

However, there needs to be  a balance between pushing children academically to the extreme, and coddling the child. Through failure, children develop resiliency and endurance.

Parents should sincerely and rarely praise their children for specific achievements. “Authoritative parents” tend to be strict, yet warm and responsive. They give their children limits, yet the freedom to explore and fail.

Another way for parents to raise smarter kids is to simply to read to their young children. Reading to them facilitates the importance of learning new things. Frey (2015) has shown in a recent study that reading to children was more effective in building literacy than simply talking to them. As the kids get older, parents should continue to discuss movies, books, and current affairs, which engages their thinking. This way, they are more likely to become thinking adults. Furthermore, parents who themselves read regularly had children who were also more likely to read and enjoy reading.

Engaging in their children by asking them about their day at school, and what they were learning, and showing genuine interest in their academic learning has the same effect as hours of private tutoring.  


  • Decrease or Delay Tracking


“Tracking” or “streaming” is separating students into groups based on their perceived academic ability within a school. For example, in Ontario, students in grade 9 can choose to focus more on academic courses, which prepare them for university, or on applied courses.  In the USA, students may enter different tracks depending on how they test.  Some schools have three streams: gifted/talented, normal, and applied.

The downside of tracking is that this tends to boost inequality, and kids labeled in the lower track tend to slow down. In Ontario, black children are twice as likely to be placed in the applied stream, and also twice as likely to be suspended from high school at least once.

Instead, treating all students with equity was shown to be more important. Instead of focusing on poverty, or socioeconomic or racial background, all students should be treated equally. Fortunately, this is a mindset, and minds can be changed. For example, consider a student who is struggling in math to have a temporary learning difficulty, rather than a permanent disability. In Finland, tracking is delayed until they are 16 years old. This way, if someone fell behind, they received extra help to keep up with the rest of the class. Also, government spending is linked with need: worse students received more money in their schools.


Success stories

A country that has recently taken many of the steps outlined above is Poland. Starting in September 1999, Poland implemented four major reforms:

  1. Creating a more rigorous curriculum for students (which required a quarter of the teachers to go back to school to improve their own education)
  2. Giving the increasingly qualified teachers more autonomy (teachers could choose their own curriculum and textbooks but were held accountable for their results).
  3. Implementing standardized tests at the end of elementary, junior, and high school (to monitor the student’s progress, and to help those who needed it)
  4. Delaying tracking a year (so that all kids could spend one more year together in an effort to change their attitudes toward education and raise expectations of what they could accomplish)

Clearly, these reforms worked: in 2000 (students were educated under the old system), Poland ranked below average of a developed country (students educated under the old system) but in 2003 (educated in the new system), students in Poland caught up to the USA in reading and math. By 2009, they outscored the USA in math and science; even the poorest kids in Poland outscored the poorest kids in USA. In 2015, Poland ranked 5th in Europe and 11th in the world! This shows that improvement can be dramatic, and quick.

Another country that has made a dramatic change is Singapore. How did Singapore, only independent since 1965, with a mostly poor, unskilled and illiterate population, overhaul their education system to achieve top scores in only 50 years?  Students from both wealthy and disadvantaged families were able to achieve high academic success.

Clues point toward their high standard of teaching: Professor Sing Kong Lee, vice-president of Nanyang Technological University states that “All teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education, and the country recruits from the top 5% of graduates” and continues to do so in a “consistent, long-term approach.” The competitiveness to get into the institute ensures the cream of the crop are selected. Since all teachers are trained in one institute, an overarching national strategy is incorporated across the country.

Summary: all children must learn rigourous higher order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools and families, one that kids can sense is real and true.


How do these findings relate to learning music, and becoming a smart musician? Check in with Part 3 coming up soon!