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Teaching Tips: Preparing a Student for a Lower-Advanced Piano Piece

By Jane Magrath | July 20, 2018

Teaching Tips: Preparing a Student for a Lower-Advanced Piano Piece

Recently I received a thought-provoking question from a teacher working with some of the more advanced pieces in Masterwork Classics, Levels 8, 9, and 10. This person wrote:

Question: I think I understand how to prepare students to play beginning and intermediate repertoire, to help them know how to practice a piece in the first week. But, how can that work with the more advanced repertoire—for example, pieces at Levels 8, 9, and 10?

Answer: You hit the nail on the head in that the more difficult repertoire comes with increasingly complex textures, patterns, and harmonic structures. While there is no one way or formula for preparing students to play pieces from the more advanced literature, perhaps some guidelines can be helpful.

To prepare a student to practice a new piece, the teacher should study the piece and prepare for that lesson. Pieces at this level usually are not ones which one’s natural instincts can take over, unless perhaps the teacher has taught it numerous times.

Steps in the Process

  1. Listen to the piece to gain an idea of the overall sound and character of the work.
  2. Discover the over-all structure of the piece, and then mark it in the music.
  3. Organize the phrases by numbers of measures grouped together, and mark them.
  4. Listen again to the piece on recording, to begin to work with an aural image of it, so that now it can help in the reading and eventually it can help in memorizing.
  5. Look for any short patterns in the piece - repetitions of musical ideas, chords, scale fragments - and mark them, so that the eye can clearly decipher the grouping visually and aurally.

Let’s apply this to "The New Puppet – Shimmy," a Level 8 piece that is included in Masterwork Classics, Level 8. See below for suggestions for introducing this to the student before week 1 and before week 2 of practice. The piece is provided in part below.

Background of the Piece

"Shimmy" is the second piece in Book 1 of three sets of Puppets by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martin?. The books contain brief sketches of 2-6 pages each, each depicting a puppet’s disposition or personality.

A “shimmy” is a variety of a ragtime dance that was especially popular in the 1920’s. The entire body of the dancer would shake from the head down. One might expect, in a piano rendition of a shimmy, to hear strong accents and even accents on the off-beats.

These are the first three pages of the score (which is four pages long):  

New Puppet Shimmy sample 1

Steps 1 & 2: Listen & mark the form (structure). 

Listen to a recording of "Shimmy." On first hearing, the piece seems to be in three sections: a large A, B, and then a return of section A.

Then re-listen, and with the student, mark the sections of the piece. We’ve marked them on the score here (below) for the student to bring it alive visually on the page.

Note that the piece begins with a one-measure introduction followed by the A section in measures 2-12. The B section can be considered to be in measures 13 – 21, and the return of the A section in measures 22-26.

Step 3: Break "Shimmy" into phrase groups.

Finding and marking them is perhaps the most important aspect to help a student know how to practice. Breaking the piece into logical phrases, or “musical sentences,” brings the score alive.

After listening to the piece or sections of the piece several times, and hearing the short sections in the ear, the student and teacher together decide which measures belong together. These are marked in the score with the student, before taking the piece home, and provide a guide for which groups to practice in shorter repetitions. See examples below.

Now is the time for the student to take the piece home and work independently on it for the next week. Always, he should look for patterns and groupings in the piece. This is how the score may look with the sections and the phrase groupings marked. Note that two ways of noting phrase groups are included. The first way on page 1 included a line encompassing the entire phrase from beginning to end. The second way on pages 2 and 3 marks the beginning and the ending of the phrase groupings with open brackets. Choose the way that is best for you and your student.

New Puppet Shimmy sample 2

Step 4: Listen still again.

You may think, “Why would we listen still again?”  Well, “Why not?” It helps to establish the sound of the piece in the student’s ear and prepare him or her for another preparatory stage.

Step 5: Mark smaller patterns in the score.

This step can be discovered and marked by the student during his at home practice in week 1 and also marked in the music by student and teacher in lessons during weeks 2-3 of practice. Several of those indications are marked here in color.

New Puppet Shimmy sample 3

Additional Information

This link is to Radio Czechoslavakia in English and provides a fascinating introduction to Martinu’s background as a student and a composer and his sets of Puppets. "Shimmy" is performed at 23:00 on the radio broadcast. 

Jane Magrath

Jane Magrath is well known as an author, clinician, and pianist. Dr. Magrath's work in the area of the standard classical teaching literature has been central to the revival of interest in this music throughout the country. She currently has more than 50 volumes published with Alfred Music, and her music editions are used widely throughout the U.S. and abroad.

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