How To Raise a Smart Kid – Part 1

How to Raise a Smart Kid

Since 2004, I have taught hundreds of children, teenagers, adults, and seniors from 3 to 80+ years old. One of the most fascinating aspects of my job is meeting different kinds of students, all with unique personalities and backgrounds. I am especially interested in the range of ability in young students. Some are slow learners, while others have a special gift for grasping musical skills and knowledge quickly, but the majority possess an “average” ability.  Other than an innate (genetic predisposition or “talent”) that we all have for various inclinations, I have wondered if there could be any external factors that could help these students learn faster and become “smarter” and more successful. Learning to play a musical instrument starts with a basic knowledge of information (how to sit at the piano, how to form an optimal hand shape, the layout of the keyboard, the mechanics of playing using the body, etc.) as well as developing correct technique to play. As the students face increased challenges, they must learn how to persist and solve problems. These qualities of persistence, grit, adapting to challenges and problem-solving are essential to be successful in life. Recently, Canada was lauded for landing in the top 10 countries around the world for math, reading and science in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ahead of countries such as the USA, UK and France. Canada ranks 3rd in reading, 10th in maths, and 7th in science. Singapore is ranked as the highest overall achiever with 1st ranking in all three subjects.

Since 2000, millions of 15 year olds at the end of their compulsory education around the world have taken the PISA. This test is offered every three years, and differs from other international tests in that it strives to not measure a student’s ability to memorize facts; in short, their preparedness for an exam. Instead, it measures a student’s ability to think critically and solve problems they have not encountered before in math, reading and science. Successful students must be able to adapt their academic knowledge creatively to solve problems.

Surprisingly, Finland emerged at the top of the world in education in in the first round of tests in 2000, and Korea was second. Researches tried to interpret the factors behind their high scores. Possible explanations could be:

  • Low poverty rate
  • Children from a privileged background
  • Homogenous population (not many immigrants)
  • Education in private vs public schools
  • High parental involvement
  • Higher government spending on education
  • Stereotypical history of academic achievement

However, even within countries, there were variations in academic performance. One would assume that privileged children in developed and wealthy countries (such as USA, Canada, Australia, Western Europe) would naturally receive the best education and rise to the top of the world in academic achievement. However, in the latest PISA test in 2015, USA’s math score ranked 41 (below the average score) and only slightly above average in reading and science. What kind of education system encouraged high academic performance?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the possible explanations:


  • Poverty Rate and Privileged Background


The typical teenager in Beverly Hills, CA, (privileged, highly educated parents) performed below average compared to all kids in Canada. In 2000, Finland ranked at the top of the world in education. Their poverty rate was lower than the USA; however, their neighbour, Norway also shared a similar poverty rate, but Norway ranked similarly to the USA on the PISA. The variation in scores in different countries caused by “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” students is not a reliable way to predict outcome. For example, in Canada, the socio-economic differences make up for a 9% variation in outcome, compared with 20% in France and 17% in Singapore. Rich parents and poor parents do not predict high or low scores.


  • Immigrant Population


Social background had little impact on the scores. Canada has a high migrant population compared to other countries around the world, with first generation (people born outside Canada) at 22.0% of the total population, second-generation at 17.4%, and 60.7% of third-generation or more. Even with a high rate of migrant children, they seem to integrate quickly into the school education system. 55% of Canada’s working-age adults have higher education (university, college, or technical school) compared to an average of 35% in other countries. However, a caveat is that the children of new migrants are often a few years ahead in math and science, and come from countries where educated is highly respected and encouraged. Their ability to problem-solve and adapt help them to quickly integrate into the new environment. Within three years of arriving, the PISA tests show the children of new migrants to Canada have scores as high as the rest of the class..


  • Private vs Public Schools


Education in private or public schools did not predict high or low scores. American children attend the richest schools in the world, yet the USA has mediocre academic outcomes.


  • Parental Involvement


More parental involvement such as volunteering in PTA’s, field trips, sports, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. does not necessarily lead to higher scores.


  • Government Spending on Education


According to 2013 statistics, US spent 26K per student (behind Luxembourg with 32.7K) while Canada spent 12K. Singapore, the top ranking country across all three subjects, spends 74% less on education compared to the USA. Taxpayer spending does not lead to more learning and smarter kids.


  • A history of academic achievement


About 60 years ago, only about 10% of children in Finland finished high school. After the Korean War (1953), the South Korea began to rebuild. Many of their citizens were poor and illiterate, and the Korean language did not even have the words for modern math and science terms. Korea began investing in educating its people, guaranteeing acceptance into top schools and universities, which would lead to permanently higher-paying jobs. This created a national culture of obsession with education, fixating on rankings and test scores in order to get into top universities. The students did well on the PISA because of how much time and energy students were used to using. Poland began a series of education reforms in 1999. Students scored below average in 2000, but by 2003 caught up to the USA in reading and math, and outscored the USA in math and science in 2009.

If poverty rate, amount of money poured into education, parental involvement and a stereotypical view of cultures do not predict academic achievement, what factors DO lead to higher achievement? Next week, I’ll post part 2, and look at 5 factors that lead to smarter kids.

Composer(s) of the month – the Bastiens

Composer(s) for August…the Bastiens!


One of the first books I was taught from was James Bastien’s series “Bastien Piano Basics”. As a result, when I first started teaching piano, these were my “go-to” books.

I used Bastien’s Primer A and B books for young beginners, and continued with book 1, 2, 3.Bastien primer.png

Meanwhile, I used Bastien’s Older Beginner Piano Course for adult beginners:

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James Bastien (born 1934) was a piano teacher and educator, and wrote over 300 publications, selling millions of copies. James passed away in December 2006, and is survived by his wife, Jane Smisor Bastien, two daughters, Lori and Lisa and 4 grandchildren. Jane, Lori and Lisa continue to write music and method books and teach. All three are passionate, active piano teachers.

Jane Smisor Bastien (L) and I (R)
From L to R: Hannah, Lori, Jane, Lisa

I met Jane, Lori and Lisa at the MTNA conference in March 2017. They were showcasing their new publication, “Bastien New Traditions All in One Piano Course”. These books update the “Piano Basics” books written by James. New features include an “all-in-one” focus, which means the pieces, theory, technic and performance pieces can be found in one book (students had to previously purchase separate books for each). In these refreshed books, students fill in note names (theory) on the same page as the piece. As new concepts are introduced, there is an exercise written to practice the new technical skill. The books are filled with colourful pictures; although beautiful, may end up becoming a distraction to some students.

Popular Pieces

Since most of the repertoire written by the Bastiens fall in the beginner level, they can be used in the RCM Prep A and B exams. Below is a popular piece that students enjoy playing called Tarantella:


When teaching Christmas music to beginners, I like to use James’ Christmas books because of their simplicity, and often chord-like approach to the LH. Also, the leveling matches the levels in his method books:

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Although I no longer use Bastien’s method books as my primary teaching books, I still use a few of his pieces to supplement.  The Bastien method books continue to be popular with many teachers, and some find great success using them.

Composer of the month – Melody Bober


The composer for July is…Melody Bober!

Melody Bober (R) and I (L)


Melody Bober is a pianist, teacher, composer, and clinician. She has a degree in music education from the University of Illinois and a masters degree from Minnesota State University. She has taught music in the public school and university level.

I attended Melody Bober’s exhibitor showcase the MTNA Baltimore in March 2017, and was excited to meet her as I have taught several of her pieces. They are geared toward teaching students how to play (they often have several pedagogical concepts) while remaining tuneful and “modern-sounding”. Check out the videos below!


Popular Pieces

Bober is a prolific composer/arranger; last time I checked on , it listed 153 items under her name. Below are a few highlights:

Prep B: Sneaky Sam

I often choose to teach this piece as students first encounter level Prep B. It features repetitive patterns (can be taught by rote) and sounds more advanced than it is.  Students enjoy being able to play this fun piece!

Level 2: I Spy

This piece evokes a story of one creature sneaking behind another, like a cat-and-mouse game. It does look trickier than it actually is, and is a wonderful introduction to the use of triplets.

Level 4: Setting Sail

Level 5: Raspberry Rag (starts at 0:25)


As students learn to play in all 24 keys (12 major keys and 12 minor keys), they must be able to adapt to specific key signatures (the sharps or flats associated with each key). Bober has written two books: “In All Keys” (one for all the flat keys and one for all the sharp keys).  This is written for the Intermediate to Late Intermediate level (approx. level 5-8). Sometimes I will use a piece in conjunction with a key that a student is learning in their technique to reinforce playing in that key. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers! Many of the pieces are suitable for Conservatory Canada and Royal Conservatory exams.

Here is Bober’s blog post about this publication:

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Going Baroque – Inspiring students to explore

Several weeks ago, Susan Dennis and I wrote a guest blog for Leila Viss (88 Piano Keys) about our experience in planning a Baroque-themed program for our students.  It was a fun way to inspire our students to explore the Baroque era.

Below is our blog post (link to the original post here)

For most piano teachers, their personal experience with piano lessons as a child probably revolved around learning technique (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.), repertoire, sight reading, and ear training. These lessons would be at a teacher’s studio, and these activities would occur on the piano bench.

In my lessons, a teacher would sometimes offer stickers for playing a piece well. One of my teachers even offered a “treasure chest” with goodies from the dollar store if I earned enough “A’s” on my assignments (this was such a highlight for me!).

Any historical information was generally taught from a textbook or from the teacher explaining the background behind a piece.

As a piano teacher now, there are SO many resources and ideas from creative teachers around the world, and many activities can happen “off-the-bench.”

My colleague, Susan Hamblin-Dennis, had an idea to implement Leila Viss’s “Going Baroque” idea for our piano students.

We loved Leila’s idea of exposing students to what is typically a “boring” era in music. We wanted to find ways to immerse our students in the Baroque environment and make it fresh and relevant to them.

There were several important aspects we wanted our students to experience:

  • Learn and polish at least one baroque piece
  • Perform the polished piece on an actual harpsichord
  • Begin improvising on a chord progression
  • Actively listen to examples of Baroque music
  • Learn about the lives of Baroque masters J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel
  • Learn about how the music and art relate.

To accomplish these ideas, we created a booklet with a collection of eleven activities, and each completed activity earned a sticker/stamp. Sample activities in the booklet included

  • Listening to music by J.S. Bach, A. Vivaldi, and G.F. Handel,
  • Attending a harpsichord masterclass where they played on a real harpsichord, attending a Baroque music concert
  • Participating in a Baroque dance workshop
  • Analyzing Baroque art.


One of the parents enjoyed the Baroque theme so much, she took it upon herself to research the type of food likely eaten in Europe during the Baroque era, and created her own presentation!

We capped off the activities with a finale “Baroque Bash,” where students played their pieces for each other, enjoyed snacks, received prizes and certificates of completion, and “Mr. Bach” even made a personal visit!

By “Going Baroque,” students experienced the Baroque era in an exciting and personal way, and discovered a new interest in Baroque music!

Here’s a testimonial from a parent:

I’ve been thinking back on the wonderful “Baroque Sunday” you arranged for music students and their families this weekend. It took some courage and effort to pull this together, and I wanted to say a big thank-you.

There was a coincidence with my son Haddie– on Friday Dec. 11 he wrote the RCM History 2 exam. As you know, a big part of the syllabus has to do with Baroque music. So, the talk by the Elixir people at St. Barnabas was an amazing way to reinforce what he learned.
Thanks again.

-Cheers, V. Barclay


We were lucky to have a clinician who was also a dancer and piano teacher! She dressed up in costume, and danced to pieces played on the piano by students.

Later, we learned the basic steps to the Baroque minuet.




Composer of the month -Irina Gorin

Composer of the month of June…Irina Gorin!


Irina Gorin was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and holds Masters Degrees in Piano Performance, Piano Pedagogy, Chamber Ensemble, and Accompaniment.  She comes from the “Russian School of Piano Playing” known for its impeccable technique, musicality, and the strict discipline required to follow this method. After moving to America, she noticed drastic differences in the teaching styles of teachers in Ukraine vs. America. This spurred her to develop her own teaching material for beginning piano students which combines the best of the musicality, careful listening, and technical skills emphasized by the Russian school with Western ideas, along with Irina’s creative, imaginative stories. Irina is also the founder of Carmel Klavier International Competition and Festival for Young Artists in Carmel, Indiana (just completed its 4th annual competition). This competition is open to competitors of any nationality between the ages of 5-18 years.


One of the reasons I wanted to learn from Irina in person was that I had seen her many Youtube videos showing her young students playing with musicality and relaxed body movements, and wanted to know her secrets to success in teaching so many successful students. Her students consistently win prizes in local and international competitions, and go on to continue advanced musical education and teaching.  She is one of the few teachers who shows how she handles various challenges in a piano lesson. And she doesn’t always show successes; many times she shows the struggles her students go through in learning how to play the piano.  She creates playlists of students so you can follow their progress over time. She shows endless patience and creativity in explaining and teaching young children, and I have used many of her ideas in my own teaching. Here is a video of her introducing the use of the pedal to a student. Notice how she emphasizes correct motions and careful listening with slow and clear instructions:

Workshop in Fishers, Indiana

In the summer of 2015, I went on a 9hr roadtrip from Toronto with a couple of other curious piano teachers to Fishers, Indianapolis, Indiana, to spend a few days at a workshop led by Irina.

Irina was leading a multi-day workshop for teachers, and we were all excited to learn about her methods and ideas. We were the only Canadian teachers, (everyone else was American), but many came from all across America, from Texas, to Florida, etc.   It was a fantastic time learning from her (and she learned from us too!) and the workshop was small enough that she was able to spend time with each of us personally, and we could receive feedback on proper technique and relaxation of the wrist and arms and body. Below is a group photo:


Tales of a Musical Journey

This series is the culmination of her years of teaching young beginners, combining the best of Russian and American schools of methodology.  Tales of a Musical Journey is written in the style of a chapter book and parents are encouraged to read the stories to their children about characters in the Magical Kingdom of Sounds including King Meter, Princess Melody, Fairy Musicalina, Wizard Metronome and Prince Rhythm.

Book 1 introduces concepts such as a freedom and flexibility of all upper body parts, tone production, patterns of black and white keys, directional reading and the musical staff. Since reading is not introduced until halfway through the book, students begin with listening and developing correct movements first. These basic skills set a solid foundation for musical playing.Tales of a musical journey

Book 2 continues developing technical skills with more emphasis on articulation an reading notated music. Both hardcopy books come with CDs (USA only) with digital options for digitally downloaded books or books sold outside the USA. Although both books are geared toward younger beginners (4-6yrs), the concepts are applicable to any beginning student and transfer student.

Tales of a musical journey 1.png

I highly recommend exploring Irina’s Youtube channel, and her two method books “Tales of a Musical Journey” to new ways of developing musicality and a solid technical foundation in any piano student.

4 Reasons To NOT Take Piano Lessons

Early on in my piano teaching career, I had the brilliant idea that ALL students could learn the piano, regardless of motivation, ability or background.  I just needed to find the right music, or the most exciting games and activities, and they would be hooked.  After teaching hundreds of students, I have realized my own (and student’s) limitations, and there are situations when a student should NOT be taking piano lessons.  Below are a few reasons to NOT take piano lessons:

1.  The student does not want piano lessons

This might seem pretty obvious, but there have been several times when a parent has signed their child up for lessons against their wishes. No matter how enticing I try to make the lesson (with iPad apps, games, improvising, playing any tunes of their choice), it’s a losing battle from the start. One parent announced at the first lesson in front of her son that he did not want lessons, and she did not expect much progress from him, but wanted him to take lessons anyway.  From the start, there was this mutual understanding that both parent and son did not expect anything from piano, and it set up a framework that was destined for failure.  I was so relieved when they finally ended lessons after about 6 months.  Another student wanted to take drum lessons, not piano lessons, but was not allowed because the parent thought that they had to learn the piano first to gain a solid musical understanding.  Again, that didn’t really make sense because they resented learning the piano, and it was a waste of time because the student made no effort to try.

        2. The student is too young

Many parents are eager to give their child the best start in life, and that often means signing them up for private piano lessons as another activity. I’ve had parents sign up their child for lessons as young as 3 years old. As a music teacher, I believe it is important for young children, even babies, to experience music. However, the private piano lesson format is generally not appropriate for very young children.  I’ve had some success starting children as young as 4 years old in private lessons, but they were able to follow instruction well, recognized letters A to G, and numbers 1 to 5, and their parents were very involved in the lesson and home practice. The lessons involved a lot of movement, activities off-the-bench, listening to music, rote playing and limited reading. Most young children do very well in group music classes specifically geared to young children, where they are guided by a teacher to sing and move to music, listen, learn about rhythm, play at the keyboard, all with the help of a caregiver. Children are encouraged to move around, and experience a variety of different activities each session. Music for Young Children is specifically geared to young children learning the piano, while Music Together is a music and movement program for newborns to 7 years.

           3. The student is already over-scheduled

How do you know if someone is over-scheduled? They have activities scheduled daily, and have no availability for rescheduling. They often come in tired and hungry, and usually announce upon arrival that they did not practice during the week. It’s understandable for students to have busy weeks with projects and assignments, but if it’s week-after-week, then it’s usually a sign that they are too busy for the commitment of piano lessons. Some parents lump piano lessons into other activities such as gymnastics, swimming, martial arts, but the difference is that piano lessons require daily practice at the piano.   In Philip Johnston’s “The Practice Revolution“, he notes that a 30 minute instrumental lesson makes up for only 0.3% of a student’s time in a week!  If the student is unable to make daily practice a priority, then there will be little to no progress in their learning. This lack of progress means skills are not learned, so there is nothing to build on during the lesson, and as a result, learning the piano becomes a stagnant chore and they will quit soon after.

           4. The student doesn’t have a piano

Beginners are often hesitant to invest in an acoustic piano because of the initial cost. However, there are many different options, from renting a keyboard (full size and weighted!), to renting/borrowing a space with a piano (I had no piano when I started lessons, so I practiced on a piano at a nearby church for a few months). Although acoustic pianos tend to be expensive in the beginning, they retain their value well, and can be resold for close to their original price if maintained well. Students need an instrument to play on during the week or their progress will come to the same conclusion as point #3.  A couple students I have taught in the past have had toys instead of keyboards. How do you know if your keyboard is a toy? Real instruments don’t light up, have 88 black and white keys, and the keys are full size. Below is a photo of a toy keyboard and a real keyboard for comparison:

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As you can see in the bottom photo, my finger is nearly the entire height of the key on the toy piano, while the key is much taller than my finger on an actual piano key.

It’s like using a toy phone made for children versus a real phone that can make calls, check your email, etc. It just does not compare, and you are doing yourself a huge disservice and wasting your time on the toy.



Before signing up for private piano lessons, make sure this is something you want to do, be prepared to invest in a proper instrument, and have time in your schedule for practice.

Composer of the month – Andrew Harbridge

Composer of the month May…Andrew Harbridge


Andrew Harbridge is a composer, clinician, examiner, and the music director at Park Street Baptist Church. Andrew lives in Peterborough, Ontario. I first came across his music several years ago when I began exploring the Conservatory Canada syllabus. Many students (especially boys!) LOVE playing his music, which ranges from jazz and pop to blues, Latin, and rock. He also writes in classical and romantic styles, so there is something for everyone!  His pieces are attractive because they often sound more impressive than they look, which means students can quickly learn and master his pieces.  He is the author of Piano Styles, Spectrum, and The Easiest Technique Book Ever (my personal favourite technique book to use with students!). I met Andrew at Summer Sizzle 2015 in Mount Forest.

Popular Pieces

Andrew’s pieces can be found the the Northern Lights and Making Tracks Series, Contemporary Idioms (from Conservatory Canada), and can be used as substitutions in Conservatory Canada and RCM examinations.

Below are a few of my favourites:

Level 1: Rock Song

Level 4: The River Meets the Sea

Level 4: Pentatonic Blues

Level 8: Boogie Woogie

Level 8: Dar Una Fiesta

On the Road to Excellence – Our Journey to the Baltimore MTNA Conference

A couple weeks ago in March, I was fortunate to attend a music teachers’ conference in Baltimore, MD. I drove down with another colleague, Liz Craig, and we had a fantastic 4 days of learning and networking, plus an extra day exploring Washington, DC.

Below is our post about our experience:–-Our-Journey-to-the-Baltimore-MTNA-Conference