The Joy of Piano Play

By guest blogger and piano parent, Chepina Rumsey

As an educator and mother, I have seen that young children live in a place of curiosity, wonder, and joy and one way to connect with them in a deep way is to join them where they are. But what does it look like to “join them” and to experience joy and wonder through their eyes as they guide us? As adults it can be hard to slow down and join our children with wonder when we have many important things going on in a day. It’s also hard to remember what it is like to be exploring the world without all of the knowledge we have acquired through our lives. I want to share an idea with you that we call Piano Play, a time of our day where I do intentionally slow down and join our five-year-old (Jackie) at the piano to playfully explore and be together.

My expectation is that at this age, Jackie needs connection and support to practice piano consistently. It’s easier to be consistent when something is fun and done together with someone you love. So, during Piano Play we sit next to each other, laugh, play games, sing along, get silly, and practice the songs and activities Miss Kelly has suggested. Miss Kelly uses a curriculum that is child-centered, so it’s not hard to make it fun – it already integrates a lot of important features. Not only is it a time for us to be together, it’s an amazing opportunity to step back and curiously observe as a parent that this is our child and her brain is doing amazing things before my eyes. I want her to remember years from now that while she was learning, struggling, and succeeding, I was there alongside her. And struggling is a part of it sometimes. It’s not always perfect and I’m not always able to patiently slow down and disconnect from work, but we do take the time every day to be together and accept what we bring to the Piano Play. Piano Play is a chance to practice grace with each other too, and it’s often the case that it’s just the time we both needed.

As I was reflecting on Piano Play, I came up with the following ideas and tips that might work for your family. Not that you have to replicate it exactly, but maybe one or two of these ideas can be included in the way your unique family structures your own Piano Play.

Limit Distractions

Try to find a time when others in the house are not distracting. We do Piano Play when our three-year-old begins her nap so that Jackie is the focus of the time. Piano Play happens after lunch so that she is not hungry or tired. It would be hard to do it later in the day when she is tired and it would also be hard to do it in the beginning of the day when she has higher energy.

Boundaries and Expectations

Setting loving boundaries about expectations is helpful and she is surprisingly not resentful when I remind her about posture, finger position, or the importance of taking turns. We put other toys or books aside to focus on Piano Play. Piano Play isn’t idyllic every day, she does need reminders sometimes. There are times when it does end in frustration. I gently tell her that I want to help her be her best and that we all need reminders at different times. Over time the routine has been established so the early work to establish expectations definitely paid off.

Guide Each Other

Jackie and I guide each other through the Piano Play in different ways. I am attentive to Jackie’s interests and also attentive to the goals Miss Kelly has set for us for the week. We do focus on the tasks that Miss Kelly has given us for the week, but also make time to playfully explore other ideas that come up (click link to see one of Jackie’s fun ideas!). For example, if Jackie has an idea she wants to try, I say something like

  • “I love that idea! Let’s try it once we do this song.”
  • “Let’s try your idea and then play this song from Miss Kelly’s list.”

Follow Cues

Following her cues is important. If she is more tired one day we may not play as long. Or, if she is really excited about a song, we may explore it longer. If she is frustrated and things are not going as well we may take a break from that song and play a made up piano game. Jackie loves to play a game where she presses the damper pedal and a note and I guess when she is pressing it. It’s so simple but she has been requesting it for seven months. She likes when I say, “you’re pressing it” in a silly voice. She can’t get enough.


We accept mistakes and talk about them. Piano play is never about being perfect, although I do acknowledge when she plays a piece “exactly how it is written” or encourage her to try certain measures again to help her brain process it. I also play some of the pieces as she watches and I talk through as I make mistakes to model. Our brains are powerful tools and it is amazing to watch her grow each week.


I find that it’s easy to “over praise” because I am so excited about her learning and progress. Rather than always being the one to praise or “judge” the piece, I try to vary my responses by

  • asking how she felt about her playing
  • asking what she liked about the song
  • smiling and watching her body language
  • smiling and giving her space to talk about the song or move on
  • giving her a hug
  • being excited and asking to try to play song

Ending with a Picture

Every day, after Piano Play, we both draw a small picture for each other in our Little Yellow Practice Book. It doesn’t have to be piano related, just something to remind us about our day. It is so rewarding to look back and see all of the pictures. There are days when we don’t get to do Piano Play and we give ourselves grace and write in the reason. Usually it’s for travel – even when Jackie is sick she’s been motivated to play at least a little bit. Jackie looks back at the practice book regularly to remember days when special things happened because it’s a treasured book that shows our life, not just our Piano Play.


Catamount Recording Studio Field Trip

Last Tuesday sound engineer, Travis Huisman, gave our students a tour of Catamount Recording Studio. He showed us their impressive collection of amplifiers and microphones, vintage tape machines, a wide variety of instruments including electric guitars, drum set, ’52 Hammond C3 Organ and beautiful Yamaha grand piano. Musicians who record here can select equipment that will give them the sound they want.


After visiting Studio A we entered the control room which looked like the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon straight out of Star Wars! The analog mixing console was enormous. Mr. Huisman demonstrated how to use the sliders and knobs to adjust the sound quality coming in on the different channels. He told students that he uses the sound board in conjunction with Avid Pro Tools, industry standard software to edit recordings. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and patiently answered questions from students and parents alike.

The highlight of the tour was when Mr. Huisman demonstrated how the recording process works from start to finish, by recording one of our students performing his own original composition! We are so grateful to have have this learning opportunity.


Session with an Audiologist

“The most important musical instrument you have is your ears.” – Dr. James Urbanski, Au.D., CCC-A.

I cannot overstate how important it is for musicians (and everyone for that matter) to protect their ears. Organizing a session for the students with an audiologist has been on my heart for over a decade, so I was over-the-moon when Dr. Urbanski (New Sound Hearing Center) said he would be happy to speak with us.

His patience and conversational yet engaging teaching style really put the students at ease. He taught them not just the anatomy of the outer, middle and inner ear, but also how we hear, explored how loud is too loud and gave us some strategies to lower our risk for hearing loss. One of the free resources mentioned was the app, Decibel X (available at the Apple Store and Google Play).

Dr. Urbanski said that sound is measured in decibels and that the ear can handle about 85 decibels for 8 hours. These charts give you a sense of how loud different sounds are and the amount of time you can safely be exposed to them before hearing damage occurs.

Calling the students by name, he fielded nearly 40 questions. You could practically see the students thinking, processing the information and making applications. They were totally engaged in the conversation. Speaking with him after the session, he mentioned how impressed he was with the children and their questions. I smiled and said, “I know! They’re brilliant.”

Field Trip: From Havana to the Arabian Nights

Students and their families visited GBPAC on September 21st, 2019 to listen to Nachito Herrera and the Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra. The concert commenced with Florence Price’s “Concert Overture No. 1”. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” contrasted well with the piano’s energetic and playful exchanges with the orchestra. The singing violin and harp passages from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” enchanted the audience. Mr. Herrera’s encore was his virtuosic, original arrangement of “Malagueña” for piano and orchestra.

I felt proud to tell the children that all these exceptional musicians are from our very own community. These people live right here in the Cedar Valley, well, everyone except the fabulous piano soloist, Mr. Herrera, who traveled here from Cuba.

The families in our studio voted and selected this event to be one of our field trips. They made a great choice!

Pennies For Practice

Would you please partner with me in raising money for the Hearst Center piano renovation project?

How it works:
1) Students get a few key sponsors (music-loving relatives, friends or neighbors) who agree to give them a penny (or more) per minute that they practice the piano.

2) Parents help students track the time they they practice each week and record the data in their practice books/binders.

3) Families notify sponsors at the end of November of the total amount of minutes practiced and calculate and collect their donations.

4) When you drop your student off at the Hearst Center for their warm-up on December 8th, bring a check made out to “Friends of the Hearst” and give it to the receptionist.

5) Grace Note Piano Studio will donate $5 toward the renovation fund for every student that participates in Pennies for Practice.

Piano Renovation Benefit Concert

We have the opportunity to perform in a benefit concert to raise funds to renovate the Hearst Center piano!

I was overjoyed when the Hearst staff mentioned they wanted to do some work on the piano’s sound board and action. This renovation project would bring the instrument back to life, breathe depth and color back into its sound and improve the responsiveness of its keys. This is the same instrument that we use for our performance workshops and recitals.

I think our students deserve to play on the best Steinway we can make available to them. That is why I will be performing in the concert. All my students are invited to participate as well. We heard some stellar performances in May. It would be very easy for us to polish up our recital pieces to contribute to this worthy cause.

Please consider attending the concert, inviting your friends and making a free will donation toward the restoration fund. Their goal is to raise $20,000 for the project.

The recital will be held on Sunday, September 23rd at 2:00 p.m. at the Hearst Center. Admission will be free-will donations which will go directly toward renovation of the piano. Refreshments will be provided. The Northeast Area Music Teachers Association is credited with organizing this event.

Festival of Trees

We’ve been invited to perform at the Festival of Trees at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center! What a fantastic way for us to share our Christmas music with the community and benefit Sartori Memorial Hospital.

You can go straight from our workshop at the Hearst Center to GBPAC! Please invite friends and family to come out and support our students at the festival.

Saturday, November 18th 1:15-2pm | Performance Workshop

Saturday, November 18th 2:30-3pm | Festival of Trees

Super Student Badges

Please read the list below with your child and start thinking about which ones you might choose. We will brainstorm together in your lessons. You can click on the links below to see examples. All my super students are encouraged to complete at least two projects during the school year. Each project you complete will earn you a Super Student Badge!


  • Learn and perform a duet with another student or family member. Capture it on video.
  • Perfect and memorize a challenging piece. Create a YouTube video of your performance.
  • Teach an easy piano piece to one of your family members or friends. Make a video of them playing.
  • Perform a piece or a duet in a public event (school talent show, birthday party, church, nursing home). Bring a program or make a recording of your performance.
  • Perfect a favorite piece and make a music video.


  • Improvise your own piece at home on the piano.*
  • Make your own arrangement of a piece you like. Write it down and learn to play it well.*
  • Draw a cartoon character in color and compose two motives to represent that character.                                       (a motive is a small musical idea, a measure or two)
  • Create a special introduction and ending to one of your favorite pieces.*
  • Add your own words/lyrics to an instrumental piece.
  • Compose a “Theme and Variations” using one of your favorite melodies. (at least two variations)*
  • Write your own song (music with words/lyrics) on the piano and make a music video of you singing and playing it. You can have fun and add special effects/costumes, etc.
  • Create a slideshow with pictures and record music that you composed, arranged, improvised, or perfected to use as the background. I will help you record your music.
  • Write your own piece (for piano) and be the star in your own music video performing it. You can use costumes, props, etc.

Musicianship Skills

  • Learn one song that you know by ear. Be able to play it accurately and fluently.
  • Transpose a piece you know (from your books) in two different ways.
  • Learn a song that you can sing and accompany yourself at the same time.*
  • Learn and demonstrate a 12 bar blues song.*
  • Perfect and memorize one new challenging piece.*
  • Perfect two method book pieces (at least 16 measures long)
  • Write out the chord progression of a song and then improvise on that chord progression.*

*Make a video to preserve your work. I can help you record.

Students Explore the MET Music Wing

Our studio field trips focused on historical keyboard instruments and their progression into the modern piano. On Saturday, June 14, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the forerunners of the piano and toured the Steinway Factory on Saturday, June 21st to see how the modern piano is made.


Highlights from the MET Music Wing

Our MET tour guide told us the story of the beautiful sea nymph, Galatea, and the Cyclops from Greek Mythology. This myth inspired the design of the Italian harpsichord we saw. Cyclops was terrible and fearsome, but he wanted Galatea to love him so he tamed his manners and learned to play the bagpipes. You see him sitting on the left. In the end Galatea (right) rejected him for Acis. The spurned Cyclops saw them together and in his jealousy crushed him with a rock. Galatea cried for Acis and his body transformed into a river that mixed with the sea.


This Flemish Double Virginal creates sound by plucking strings. There are two keyboards. This instrument was perfect for playing duets. The inscription across the front reads SCIENCIA NON HABET INIMICUM NISI IGNORANTEM. It translates to “Knowledge (science) has no enemy but the ignorant”.  ARS USU IVVANDA painted below the right keyboard says that “Art is improved by practice”. Timeless advice for music students!


The real reason we came was to see the oldest playable piano, made by its inventor, Bartolomeo Christofori.

The real reason I wanted to bring the students to the MET was to see the oldest surviving and yet functioning piano. It was made by Bartolomeo Christofori, the inventor of the piano. What made this instrument special was its ability to play loudly and softly based on the power of the keystroke. All the keyboard instruments up to that point in history could only play one volume more or less. Christofori called his creation gravicembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord that plays loud and soft). Later it was shortened to “piano”. I was really happy that we could listen to a recording of someone playing this remarkable instrument.

Our visit to the Steinway factory this year was fascinating as always. There are many brands of pianos we might have studied, but Steinway & Sons offers the best and latest evolution of the piano. Although their pianos are made with traditional, time-tested methods, their commitment to producing the best quality instruments drives them to continually evaluate and improve their craft.


Students Create Outstanding Original Music | Competition Winners

The Spring Fever Composition Competition was a huge success. Every student in my studio composed at least one piece for the contest. For two or three, this was their very first experience writing music. It was a challenge, but it was worth it.

All the pieces we created were compiled into this music book. The cover art was designed by Sebastian and Sarah. They did a lovely job. Everyone received a copy to take home so they can enjoy playing each others’ music. There are so many intriguing pieces to try: “Shark Attack“, “Falling Snow“, “The Spooky Forest“, “Magical Mystery” and more!


Congratulations to all the students on their excellent work!


Four winners were selected by the judge based on the following criteria: form, pitch, rhythm, playability and expressiveness. The prize for winning was creating a music video of their piece and an iTunes gift card. Click on their titles to listen to them play!


Spring Fever Composition Competition Winners


Sarah, (5-6 year olds) “Spring Is Love”                                      David, (7-9 year olds) “The Endless Road”


Avery, (10-13 year olds) “The Desert Path”                              Matthew, (Senior Division) “The Calm Before the Storm”