Exploring Music Resources
December 2020 - Shad Ryan Wenzlaff

This month I’ll share an assessment about some recently published Christmas music for the elementary student. Mike Springer’s arrangement of 22 carols with Jazz-style accompaniments – 11 in each of 2 levels is worthy of our time. Book 1 is graded early elementary – in this instance, this means tunes are notated on the staff in Middle C position, and Book 2 is Elementary/Late Elementary. In my estimation, none of these tunes is a true “Late” elementary – I’d place them with the Federation Primary 1 and Primary 2 level. In my estimation, none of these arrangements (for the student) even approaches Federation Primary 3, or the equivalent of a Faber Piano Adventures Book 2A, Helen Marlais Succeeding at the Piano Grade 1B in terms of conceptual and pedagogical difficulty. If you have begun to use the Bastien New Traditions All in One Piano Course – your level 1A student will find Book 2 to be reasonable and accessible.

Frankly, for the early elementary student (Book 1), there’s not much new with his arrangements of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, Good King Wenceslas, Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, We Three Kings of Orient Are, I Saw Three Ships, God Rest Yes Merry Gentlemen, Angels We Have Heard on High O Come, All Ye Faithful, Toyland, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. But – what a fresh collection! For the teacher, however, these are certainly jazzy and exciting. What’s more, I will note that I’m excited to assign these for my students whose parent plays with some dexterity. The “teacher part” can often be tough for a parent to decipher. Less so with these – when compared to some of the convoluted “duets” that appear in some of the method books.

For the “Late Elementary” student, Book 2 introduces the 8th note, mezzo dynamics, Joy To the World features a dotted quarter/eighth rhythm, and tied notes. Auld Lang Syne requires some musical listening – there is a ritardando noted in this 16 measure tune. As is quite common with most elementary Christmas books, “What Child is This” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” each requires reading accidentals. Springer arranges it with a swung eighth! Silent Night and Deck the Halls require a simple LH hand crossover.  

My only critique is we have to deal with a page turn on “The First Noel” – better editing would have rendered the page turn unnecessary. I know that’s a petty comment, but asking a student to navigate a page turn before level 3 or 4 seems entirely unnecessary – in my humble opinion. 

Overall – these two terrific new volumes add to our already immense array of elementary level Christmas music. Each is $7.99 per book – published by Alfred. 

Book 1: ISBN: 978-1-4706-4250-1
Book 2: ISBN: 978-1-4706-4251-8

Piano Teacher Resources

Exploring Music Resources - published in NUANCES, the monthly newsletter for MAME - Madison Area Music Educators

Shad Ryan Wenzlaff

August/September 2020

I. New or Recent Repertoire
The Amazing Music Alphabet – Piano Solos
Jyoti Hench – ISBN 0-8497-9846-9
Published 2019 by Kjos Music Press. $5.95 retail

This new publication takes the music alphabet, letter by letter, and offers an exploration of basic hand positions. The best feature of this book is that it allows the teacher who teaches intervallic note reading a worthy supplement to the lesson. If you don’t, there are three pieces in middle C position. My biggest critique is this was a missed opportunity to include some engaging pictures for the visually curious learner (or the teacher who likes to engage with pictures!)

Restart Piano
Karen Marshall – Heather Hammond – ISBN 978-1-84938-976-1
Published 2012 by Hal Leonard / Wise Publications - $14.99 retail

I ran across this book as I sought a way to offer my adult students, who are “restarting” years after studying previously, something more than your standard approach. Slogging through every little lesson can become uninspired and dull for the adult or transfer student.

This book offers everything I love about teaching piano: some theory peppered among engaging repertoire, visually simple charts, short but important sight reading exercises, and practice tips.

This is also the only musical and idiomatic arrangement of the “Theme from Schindler’s List” (John Williams) that I have found to be accessible to the intermediate level student who can’t get enough of movie themes.

5 Finger Halloween Fun
Tom Gerou – ISBN 978-0-7390-7326-1
Published 2010 Alfred

It covers The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Grim Grinning Ghosts theme from the Disney parks. Plus, there’s an arrangement of the Monster Mash that will afford the eager teacher a chance to teach tied eighth notes and syncopation without requiring too much complex note reading.

The Lang Lang Piano Method
Faber Music – ISBN 978-0-571-53912-3
Published 2016.
Let’s face it piano teachers, you are curious  – right?! Well, introduced this to a 2nd year student who needed additional reinforcement following his first year books – He’s now well engaged with the approach, although I will note it has its limitations – it moves fairly quickly. So far, my favorite piece to teach is from Level 2: Snowball Fight. It’s in a-minor, and features a hilarious cluster (ABCDE in both hands) at the end – marked “all fingers” / “Splat!” Have fun inventing your own Snow Ball Fight improvs!

III. Underrepresented Composers

It is imperative as music educators that we respond to   Black Lives Matter. In the coming months, watch for  advanced repertoire featuring underrepresented American composers. Why, after all, is it so customary to teach the engaged advanced student Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert (etc.) almost exclusively? I think it’s time we encourage a wider range of composers. Next month I will explore Florence Price – I’m currently learning her Sonata in e minor. I have also found some “teaching pieces”, although need to research further their availability in print (more on that next month!).

Roy Harris, Toccata (please scroll down for YOUTUBE/video/recording).

Harris wrote this “touch piece” in 1949, and it’s published by Carl Fischer New York. This is a great piece for the advanced student whom you are eager to teach sostenuto pedal technique, and engage with an innovative but not too outlandish “modern” sounding tonality. My ear tells me it belongs to that era immediately post World War II. This piece highlights mixed-meters and a virtuosic range that captures the entire compass of the piano. It is as virtuosic as a Chopin etude, and requires some keen listening and smart problem solving. Gain some insights by looking up Geoffrey Burleson’s skilled recordings on CD. At right is a performance by Philip Amalong /youtube.

This piece was not written for a small hand. There are a lot of parallel octaves and the highlights some inspired contrapuntal writing that convinced me that this composer was well worth my serious attention.

Amy (Mrs. H.H.A.) Beach, Dreaming from Op. 15 (Sketches). This piece is now featured on the WSMA Class A list. [At last, we find female composers featured on our standard lists!] My student performed it last year at her contest and on the Honors Festival recital, and found it tremendously engaging and rewarding. I found it tricky to teach, but only because there is a sophisticated character shift mid-A section and the voicing requires an attention to detail that proved this an outstanding composition. It’s readily accessible in FJH Succeeding with the Masters – The Festival Collection Book 8 (Advanced) (Helen Marlais, ed.) ISBN 978-1-56939-595-0. The recordings are superb (Helen Marlais, Chiu-Ling Lin, Frances Renzi).

Allow me to recommend also the Dover edition with an introduction by important Beach scholar, Adrienne Fried Block. ISBN 978-0-486-41680-9.

Three of the “Sketches Op. 15” (1892) are found here, including Dreaming (No. 3), In Autumn (No. 1) and Fire-flies (No. 4).

Fireflies is an excellent etude in thirds, Autumn is less virtuosic than Dreaming. All are infinitely rewarding and highly recommended for any serious student. Also check out, Op. 92 No. 2 “Hermit Thrush at Morn” and Op. 97 “From Grandmother’s Garden” (1922) Nos. 1 (Morning Glories) and 5 (Honeysuckle) deserve your attention. All feature patterns that fit well in almost any sized hand (Hermit Thrush the most difficult, but with broken octaves) and each will dazzle an audience at your next studio recital.

If for no other reason than to diversify and update your repertoire offerings, all of these books belong in your teaching library.

Stay tuned for more research & review in the coming months.

copyright Shad Ryan Wenzlaff, 2020


Here's an assignment for my students - listen to and watch these two unique performances of Amy Beach "Dreaming". What is different? How does the artistic choices of tempo differ? What effect does it have on the actual score that Amy Beach offers us?

Amy Beach. "Dreaming"

From Four Sketches - Opus 15. 

YouTube Video above March 16, 2016,

Alcalá de Henares Nikos Stavlas, piano Amy Beach, Dreaming and Fireflies from Four Sketches, op.15
Below:  Cinema Modeoff  Jessica Mellott plays "Dreaming" Op. 15, No. 3 by Amy Marcy Cheney Beach  This performance was given in partial fulfillment of a Master's degree at the University of Oregon

Dreaming has been published in the following available resources:

Succeeding with the Masters

The Festival Collection, compiled and edited by Helen Marlais. Book 8. FJH

Amy Beach: Piano Music. Selected and with an introduction by Adrienne Fried Block. Dover. This edition also includes "In Autumn" and "Fire-Flies", also from Op. 15 (1892) entitled "Sketches", all composed by Amy Beach.

Two additional resources are:

"Four Centuries of Women Composers" and "The Life and Music of Amy Beach - The First Woman Composer of America" - both by Gail Smith. Creative Keyboard Publications. 

GROUP CLASS OBSERVATIONS - WINTER 2020 by Shad Ryan Wenzlaff (copyright 2020).

​I recently taught a group of lessons where I asked:  "what piece that you learned in one of your current book do you love to play most?" The essential motivation here was to choose something for review - in addition to our lesson du jour. The goal I set forth for each student was to bring this piece back up to the level it was several weeks ago - bring it into lesson next week for a special Valentine's Day prize (I have some  hearts I cut out of a piece of red felt that I picked up at a craft store for less than a dollar - and I let students choose some trinkets which we glued to the surface to make into a fun, personalized holiday prize - on the back, they got to write their name and the year to commemorate their accomplishment). 

It is very curious to me that nearly every student selected a solo from their lesson books.

Here is a sampling  of repertoire my students "love the most".

Alfred's Premier Piano Course

Lesson Book #3

p.8-9 Island Daydream.

Succeeding at the PIano

Lesson and Technique Book Grade 3

(2nd edition)

p.58-59 Elfin Tarantella

Succeeding at the Piano

Lesson and Technique Book Grade 1

(2nd edition)

p. 16-17 Melody by Chopin

What does this reveal about lessons?

On the one hand, I think it may have something to do with how enthusiastically I assigned these pieces. But more than that, I honestly believe it's related to how well written are these selections?! Not only did my students learn something as a concept, or skill as well as having reinforced skills learned recently (prior) to that lesson; but my students enjoyed playing something well written and musical. 

I've often found that there is a lot of - what I will call - disposable music in certain books. This could be music that doesn't really inspire the student, or something that seems written without careful consideration of a child's hand shape or the limits of a small finger span. All three of these pieces are developmentally appropriate within the setting of the lesson book in which each can be found, and provides something exciting and accessible for the diligent  student. They were - importantly - more than mere exercises (although there is merit to such writing as well - and I will admit, rarely do I expect a student to practice such pieces; instead I use them in lesson exclusively). 

Beyond this, true of all three pieces I've listed, there is something fascinating about the layout - the graphic design - of the page. Succeeding at the Piano includes beautiful illustrations in color, hand rendered by an expert illustrator adept at the craft of drawing and color. The illustrations connect an idea and inspires the student. There is a direct idea the student can link to the piece of music itself. I think this fascinates the student and helps to inspired some practice and investment in the piece at home and in the lesson. Certainly I'm not going to marr the image - I may circle it, or label an illustration of a child with the student's name or draw a thought bubble to quote my student from lesson. Similarly, "Island Daydream" presented an image that my student could relate to on a page that didn't include unnecessary clutter or distraction. It includes a nicely rendered, hand illustrated drawing that fits well the idea of the lyrics of the solo (imagining an Island during an afternoon reverie on a cold day, perhaps?! After all, I do teach from snowy Madison, WI).

While it's somewhat debated in the literature, I think the illustrations which populate the page are important. Students of all generations get inspired by what we see - especially true in the 21st-century where visual culture dominates our lives. We like things that are "easy on the eyes" (as one of my favorite art history professors and mentors one deemed "the goal for all art through all of time").

Watch this column in the coming months as I polish an essay I've been working on for some time related to the importance of the illustrations in the pedagogical literature.