Composer of the month – Debra Wanless

Composer of March…Debra Wanless!


Debra Wanless is a pedagogy specialist who is the principal and founding member of the Northern Lights Canadian National Conservatory of Music. This music conservatory is unique in that it features only Canadian composers; therefore the content is entirely Canadian! She is also the founder of a piano pedagogy symposium called “Summer Sizzle”, which I attended in 2015 in Mount Forest, Ontario. I first met Debra at her Summer Sizzle workshop, and was very impressed by her knowledge and ideas for piano pedagogy. She led a workshop on inspiring ideas for developing reading skills in students, and another session on polyrhythms (playing different rhythms in each hand). This year, Summer Sizzle is back in Mount Forest, and guest clinicians include Christopher Norton, Nancy Telfer, Wes Froese and Debra Wanless.

Popular Pieces

Debra’s pieces can be found the the Northern Lights and Making Tracks Series, Contemporary Idioms (from Conservatory Canada), RCM Popular Selections, (Cow Cow Boogie). I also use her books, Keyboard Harmony to introduce students to playing from lead sheets. She has also written a series of piano method books called “Let’s Begin“. As the use of modes becomes more and more common in today’s music, I have tried to find resources to understand and teach this concept, and her books “Demystifying Modes” and “In the Mood for Modes” have been easy to understand and use with my students. Students are introduced to the modes, and given opportunities to improvise using the mode and learn pieces written in the mode. Below is my signed copy of “In the Mood for Modes”:



Composer of the month – Phillip Keveren

Composer for February…Phillip Keveren!


Phil Keveren  is an American pianist and composer. He is a co-author of the popular Hal Leonard Student Piano Library method books (see photo below).  His “The Philip Keveren Series” are very popular. These books are arrangements of popular, religious, traditional tunes – the music that you often hear, yet the originals are too challenging for late-elementary to intermediate-level piano students.


Popular Pieces

One of my favourite books are “Songs of Inspiration”, containing pieces such as Somewhere Out There, You Raise Me Up, I Can Only Imagine, and Lean on Me. Check out the full song list here.Songs of Inspiration

Another popular books is “Disney Songs for Classical Piano”. Pieces include Beauty and the Beast, Colors of the Wind, Under the Sea and Can you Feel The Love Tonight. Full list of songs here. Below is the cover, and an example of a piece in the book.

Click here for the full list of his arrangements available through Hal Leonard.



Composer of the month – Christine Donkin

Composer for January…Christine Donkin!



Christine Donkin was born in northwestern Alberta, and studied music composition at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. She composes choral, chamber, and orchestral works, and has written several volumes of pedagogical books for the piano, violin, and double bass. I met Christine in 2012 at the BCRMTA (BC Registered Music Assoc.) conference in Abbotsford, BC. Here is my signed book, Legends and Lore.


Popular Pieces

One of my favourite books of Christine’s is her Legends and Lore, written for the elementary to late-intermediate level. Dream Journey and Witches and Wizards are from this collection.

Level 1: Dream Journey

This is a gorgeous, imaginative piece that evokes a dreamy atmosphere. It doesn’t sound like something in level 1.

Level 3: Witches and Wizards

When students first transition to level 3, I often choose this study as the first one they learn. I imagine the witches on brooms, flying up and down, while the wizards throw spells left and right (watch where the pianist crosses their left hand over the right). Watch this video and see if you can identify the “wizard” part:

Level 7: Peace Country Hoedown

I imagine fiddles, stomping feet, and dancing at this festive hoedown! Note the change in emphasis (listen for the accents).

Christine’s piano music always reflect the titles of the pieces, and students have fun exploring the different sounds they can make to create the mood and imagery of the title while acquiring the skills needed to progress in learning the piano.


Composer of the month – John Burge


Composer for December…Dr. John Burge!


Dr. John Burge is an Juno award-winning Canadian composer, born in Ontario. He holds three degrees in composition and theory, and is a full-time professor and Director of the School of Music at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.  Dr. Burge writes choral music, orchestral music (he won a Juno for best Canadian Classical composition) and of course, piano music. His piano compositions can be found in the syllabi of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Conservatory Canada, and the Canadian National Conservatory of Music. I met Dr. Burge several times since moving to Toronto. I first met him at the 2014 ORMTA summer conference, where he was one of the adjudicators for the provincial competition. The next year, he was one of the many composers at Summer Sizzle in 2015. In the featured photo, you can see him performing one of his preludes* on prepared piano (creating sounds on the physical parts of the piano other than the keys (this is why the piano is exposed). He was the clinician at a composition masterclass in Nov. 2016. One of my students attended this class, and enjoyed learning more about composition and trying some of his suggestions to improve her composition. When asked about what inspired him, he refused to give a definite answer, only stating that it was a matter of just sitting down and just DOING IT. Each morning, he spends time composing. This was a great reminder to all of the students and teachers of the importance of discipline and diligence when working to achieve a goal.

Popular Pieces

Since this is a piano website, I will focus on his piano compositions. However, you can check out his list of compositions on his website here.

Level 6: Dancing Scales

Although this piece starts out “easy”, he explores different scales, and starts on different scale degrees. This piece requires a precise and accurate touch, with each staccato sounding crisp and clean.

Level 8: Cluster Blues

I couldn’t find a video of this piece being performed, so here is a sample page of the beginning of the piece. Both “Dancing Scales” and “Cluster Blues” can be found in Dr. Burge’s “Parking an Octatonic Truck” for solo piano. Notice the syncopated rhythm and chord clusters in the right hand.


*Below is a video of a performance of all 24 Preludes for solo piano:

I’ll leave you with Dr. Burge himself performing “Oscillations”  in recognition of Dr. Arthur McDonald’s 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Stopping Stopping

No, the title isn’t a typo. Today’s post is all about stopping stopping, or in other words, how to prevent pauses and hesitations when playing music. Frequently, after a student plays their piece for me, I will ask them what they thought of their performance. Students frequently point out note or rhythmic errors, or challenging areas, but often don’t notice their pauses while attempting to play the challenging areas. This is where many teachers will pull out their trusty metronome, a musician’s best friend: metronome

Invented in 1814, this tool produces an audible sound at regular intervals that can be adjusted. I have Pro Metronome on my phone and iPad (free on the app store with the option for in-app purchases for more features). This means I bring my digital metronome with me to all my in-home and studio lessons. I use Pro Metronome on a daily basis:pro-metronome

The metronome is certainly useful in finding out what the specified tempo of a piece should be (this information can be found on the top left side of nearly every piece of music). However, the reasons a student pauses may be more diverse. Metronomes show you what the steady pulse should be, but cannot substitute a musician’s inner sense of the pulse. Here are some reasons behind why students pause and strategies to overcome them:

  1. There is no inner awareness of the pulse  imagine listening to music and tapping along to the beat. This is the pulse of the song. Sometimes students can get so caught up in reading, that they lose their sense of the pulse.

STRATEGY 1: Playing the piece with the metronome can show students exactly where the beats are not lining up. This may be challenging in the beginning because students may not be able to listen to the “ticks” and their playing at the same time to evaluate, if the beats match.

STRATEGY 2: I call this “Tap and Play”. I play the piece, while the student taps along on their lap. Then, I switch and tap the beat, while they play the piece. This often helps students realize, what parts are rushing or lagging without me saying a word.

STRATEGY 3: “Ghosting”: We listen to a pre-recorded version of their piece, while the student silently plays along on the keys (like a ghost).

STRATEGY 4: Playing the piece with a backing track. There is an amazing app called iReal Pro that allows us to create our own backing tracks. The icon in the app store looks like this: iRealPro.pngIt’s $17.99 on the app store.  Here’s an instructional video:

Learning to play with a backing track is so important that this is one of the requirements in Conservatory Canada’s “Contemporary Idioms” stream. Students in level 1 to 10 must perform an improvised pieces using a backing track. This skill is important if we wish to perform with other musicians (and what greater joy is there than making music together!?).

2. Students are looking at the music, and/or then checking their hands – There is a difficulty in playing the notes. The student is not decoding fast enough. The student may be spending time reading the notes, trying to find them on the keyboard, or a combination of both.

STRATEGY 1: Find out if this is mainly a reading or location issue. If the student is not reading the notes fast enough, sometimes writing in the note names is a quick fix. A better method is to “spot practice” that area until the notes are internalized.

STRATEGY 2: If the student is not locating the notes on the keyboard fast enough, I have them look down at the keys, staring at the exact key, where they want to go. Sometimes I’ll put a coloured sticky tab temporarily on the piano key to help guide their eyes to where they need to go.  

STRATEGY 3: This is actually applicable to reading and practicing overall: Play SLOWLY. Many times what students think is a slow place is only slow compared to the final tempo of the piece. One should play slow enough that the brain has enough time to process all the information. If the brain does not have enough time to process the notes, rhythm, articulation, and dynamic, then something will be lost. In this way, the student learns some of the material, but not all, resulting in a need to go back and add these things in later, wasting precious practice time.

Here’s a page from a student, who is struggling with pauses. Some hesitation spots are a reading issue, so the yellow sticky tabs point to the exact spot, where the student should follow the notes on the page. Some spots are location problems, so we have drawn eyes on the yellow tab to remind the student to LOOK DOWN at the keys and their fingers: 


3. Large Leaps – There may be a large leap in either or both hands, so the student needs time to find the notes on the keys.

STRATEGY 1: Memorize the notes and look down at the keys and where the fingers need to leap. Pay attention to the feeling (your kinesthetic memory) of the distance traveled. How much does your arm need to move? How does your body feel? Do you tense up? Are your fingers reaching out as much as they can for the keys? Are you using logical fingering?  As the student practices accurately, their body begins to remember how far they need to move to achieve success.  

STRATEGY 2: If you need to play two or more notes at the same time, form the shape of the distance needed to play the notes, while your fingers are still in the air, and touch the piano keys briefly before actually pressing the keys. For example, when playing solid triads, I make the shape of each chord and inversion with my fingers in the air as I’m moving to play the next chord. By the time my fingers make contact with the keys again, they are already in the correct shape to play the chord. In the example below, there are huge leaps in both hands. For large chords (such as those in Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C sharp minor”), try learning the lowest and highest notes in each chord first. This way, the inner notes must fall in between the two extremes and will be easier to find and remember.

A portion of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp minor”

STRATEGY 3: Move your non-playing hand quickly. For example, in “Celebration” by A.C. Gaudet (found the the level 1 piano etude book), the left hand plays on the 1st and 3rd beat in bar 14. Since the quarter notes are played at a speed of 132-160, it can be challenging for students to not be “late”. Students should begin moving their left hand as soon as it is finished playing beat one. The same rule goes for the right hand (plays on beat 2 and 4). See the example below:IMG_5823 (1).JPG

STRATEGY 4: Preparation. The key to nailing a leap is to ensure the fingers are already on top of the keys before they are depressed. Think of the next leap and get those fingers on top of where they need to go ahead of time.

Sometimes reasons outside of those already mentioned may affect the student’s performance. These reasons may include (but not limited to):

  • Dim lighting
  • Vision deficiencies 
  • Performance anxiety or nervousness in performing in front of an audience 
  • A distracting environment, Ex. ringing phone, noisy family members, etc.
  • Playing on an unfamiliar instrument
  • Cold fingers
  • Tiredness (mental, physical)
  • Unfocused playing (not thinking about the task at hand, or not actively listening)
  • Hunger (it may be near dinner-time!)

What are your suggestions for a polished, steady performance?






Composer of the month -Martha Hill Duncan

Continuing on the my series, the composer for November is…Martha Hill Duncan!


Martha is from Texas, and moved to Canada in 1982. She currently resides in Kingston, ON. I met Martha for the first time in 2015 at the Summer Sizzle Conference held in Mount Forest, ON. She is very friendly and down-to-earth, and loves to share her music. She is a founding member of Red Leaf Pianoworks, a composer’s collective for new piano repertoire. Many of her award-winning choral and vocal works have been performed in North America. Her piano compositions can be found in the syllabi of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Conservatory Canada, and CNCM (Canadian National Conservatory of Music).

Popular Pieces

Level 5: Water Lilies

This evokes for me the feeling of a languishing summer afternoon at the cottage, sitting by the lake, watching the dragonflies and the water lilies gently bobbing in the ripples.


Level 8: The War Memorial for Solo Piano 

I first heard this piece performed at a presentation of Red Leaf Pianoworks music. I loved the large, sonorous chords and what sounds like tolling bells.


Level 9: Santa Ana Winds

Listen for steady, rapidly moving figures, imitating the winds; sometimes turbulent and insistent and at other times, quiet and almost hesitant.


Level 10: The Japanese Tea Garden

Often dissonant and “scary” sounding, this piece introduces us an example of 21st century piano music. Although some may find this difficult to listen to at first, the more you listen to it, the more you find melodies woven into the music. Notice how she uses the very low and high registers. The music starts steadily and grows in intensity several times, ending quieter and almost abruptly.


L to R: John Burge, Martha Hill Duncan, Susan Greisdale

Composer of the month – Christopher Norton

Continuing on my series of “living composers”, October will be….Christopher Norton!


Christopher Norton is a British composer, adjudicator, clinician and teacher. Born in New Zealand, he moved to the UK in the late 1970’s, and continues to travel the world extensively, giving workshops and presentations, and while continuing to compose for musicals, orchestras, ballet scores, and of course, piano music.

I met Christopher in 2013 (see my previous blog post here).

Christopher has been one of the first composers to write educational music in contemporary, jazz, rock, and blues styles for young pianists, while maintaining the classical traditions. Microjazz, published in the 1980’s introduces contemporary music styles to beginning and intermediate students. Microjazz for other instruments is available (for example, guitar, clarinet, flute, bassoon, trombone, saxophone, and more!). His Connections series is leveled similarly to the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) levels 1-8, and many of his pieces appear in the RCM syllabus, and the Conservatory Canada syllabus.  Norton’s American Popular Piano (APP) etudes are part of the exam requirements for Conservatory Canada’s Contemporary Idioms Syllabus. The APP etudes lay out methodical and logical strategies for improvising and vamping (from my personal experience, they are a great way to start thinking about improvising and to grow in your improvisational ability).

Popular Pieces

Christopher Norton often posts videos about how to perform his pieces. What a valuable resource, to have a live composer tell us how to play his pieces!  He is on Facebook and Youtube, and often comments on performances of his music.

Prep B: Struttin’

Level 2: Feelin’ Good

Level 3: Positively Swinging

Level 5: Scamp

Level: Struttin’ About

Level 7: Fantasy Bossa

Level 8: Jane’s Song


I have taught all the pieces above, and students love them! There is something new, yet familiar and fun about them.  I have I highly encourage anyone interested in the piano to try out his pieces. You’ll have lots of fun!

Composer of the month – Susan Greisdale

This is a continuation of my monthly blog posts about living composers. Click here to read about the composer for August.

For September’s composer, I have chosen….Susan Greisdale!.


Susan is a composer, teacher, adjudicator, and clinician.  I have been fortunate to meet Susan several times in Ontario. She is friendly and approachable, and I have heard from a former student of hers, that she is a fantastic and inspiring teacher. Susan is a founding member of Red Leaf Pianoworks, a group of Canadian composers who publish their compositions on a regular basis.


Popular Pieces

Many of Susan’s pieces an be found in the RCM syllabus, including her award-winning composition “Arctic Voices” found in the RCM Level 3 Repertoire book:

(the pianist is playing a bit quick here)

As you can see from this sample, Susan uses contemporary devices, and writes music that evokes an emotional response. What this means is that instead of telling you what you should be playing, you have some freedom to express your own emotions into interpreting the score.

Level 6: Lament for the Polar Bear

Level 7: Toques and Parkas

I have taught several of Susan Greisdale’s pieces, and not only are they imaginative and interesting, they are also pedagogical (they teach the student how to do something) pieces.