Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 9.01.57 AM

Tis the season for busyness to take over….especially for our youth who are finishing up school for the next couple weeks with tests and projects. After the hard work of our holiday recitals was complete, AJ’s Music Factory piano students participated in a creative adventure of arranging Jingle Bells based upon ideas from their recital pieces. We wanted to let creativity flow in a fun, stress-free environment to enjoy the music this time of year when all seems to get a bit hectic.

During the week of the recital, students were presented with a lead sheet for Jingle Bells in the key of C Major with the assignment to come back with it comfortably learned for the next lesson. For some younger students this was the first time being given a lead sheet, so this offered a learning opportunity for reading this form of written music (melody line written out with chord symbols on top). Upon arrival to their lesson last week, they worked hard on creating their own version of Jingle Bells. As a starting ground we looked at their recital piece to analyze how the composer had arranged the piece. What was the chord structure? Did they use an intro? An outro? If so, what did they do to make it interesting? How did the left hand move? Where was the melody placed? What rhythm is used? What time signature is this song? So on and so forth we went. We then used these ideas to meld together each student’s original Jingle Bells.

Most students went home to finish the piece, and then they sent a video back with their final arrangement. Extra bonus: some of them even have their beautiful Christmas tree in the background of their video! Some points I found interesting through this assignment:

  • Students become VERY motivated when they know they are going to be put on YouTube and the AJ’s Music Factory blog. They all wanted to put their best musical step forward to present their work.
  • Students love being able to create. Instinctively students are creative beings, and as educators it is our responsibility to nurture this instinct and not allow it to be set to the wayside. Creativity is highly encouraged at our studio.
  • Students found great pride in their arrangements. Every. Single. One. I was amazed by the ownership students took of their pieces. By the end of the lesson they were beaming with what they had accomplished.

Video taping students offers a lesson all on it’s own as students can see both their strengths and weaknesses. As a teacher I can remind a student 50 times that their fourth finger needs to be curved, strengthened, etc, but it’s amazing how quickly they want to change it once they SEE it. Watching the video also allows for us to catch all the wonderful strengths in their playing and how far they have come in their musical training.

Final shout out to Wendy Stevens of for creating this activity and to Leila Viss of Viss Piano Studio in Colorado for reminding us of this awesome idea!!

Enjoy a few of our Jingle Bells arrangements in the video below and have a wonderful holiday season!!




christmas-recital pic

We had two wonderful recitals this past weekend where the students showcased their musical selections. From beginners with just a couple months of lessons to seasoned students, all performed beautifully to the best of their abilities. AJ’s Music Factory offers multiple performance opportunities throughout the year to help students grow in confidence as musicians and performers. With each performance that passes, student’s become more at ease with being on stage and entertaining others with their musical gifts.

Recitals hold great value for students as a motivator being that there is a specific goal in mind. Students work diligently to create a polished performance to showcase to relatives and peers of the studio, and they also get the opportunity to hear more advanced musicians or become inspiration for the up and coming pupils. Performances also provide a great sense of pride and accomplishment that fuels students to continue progressing forward in their musical studies.

Watch this video for a bit of holiday musical cheer!

We’ve been in a hustle and bustle at AJ’s Music Factory preparing our songs for our upcoming Christmas Recital. As a nice break from the prepping, this week many students are also learning about improvising within the bounds of selected rhythms. Andrea and Trevor Dow of Teach Piano Today created and released this wonderfully festive activity called Santa’s Workshop Improv, and my students are loving it!  Check out Naomi’s progress in this week’s lesson in the video below. I love watching her confidence excel quickly in this activity and the proud high-five of greatness at the end! Enjoy!

Two summers ago I was beyond fortunate to attend the 88 Creative Keys Camp ( in Denver, CO where I studied under the tutelage of keyboard pedagogy masters Bradley Sowash ( and Leila Viss ( These two are pioneering the way for piano teachers to embrace improvisation and creativity in a new era of piano lesson instruction. I left this camp empowered to touch on aspects of improvisation and creative freedom at the keyboard in every lesson I gave to my students. Growing up I had always wanted to sit down and play by ear, but I was never taught this in my lessons and didn’t know where to begin on my own. I now prioritize the balance of eye playing and ear playing instruction equally for my students to progress as well-rounded musicians and players.

In July 2015 I attended the National Keyboard Pedagogy Conference (NCKP) outside of Chicago where I had the pleasure of sitting in on Forrest Kinney’s sessions (  Forrest is another pedagog paving the way in improvisation and arranging. In this first video, Marin and I used an example out of Forrest’s Pattern Play Book 1 improvising in the Eb Blues. Marin starts out only using the right hand on the blues scale while I handle the chords and bass line. Leila and Bradley had introduced me to the app iRealPro where I found the backing track arrangement to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” a 12-bar blues tune with the typical I-IV-V progression.  Originally in the key of E, we transposed it to the key of Eb with the tap of a button in the app.

Later in Marin’s lesson we approached the song with her playing the bass line along with chords in the right hand. Marin has been studying chords in lessons for the past couple years, so handling this was not a stretch for her in the lesson. Many students will take some time to bring in the ease of chord voicing. In the middle of this video Marin runs the Eb blues scale up and down in the right hand while coordinating with the bass line. We start this process to ease her into improvising while continuing the bass line.

Marin’s assignment for the next week was to come back with the ability to hold down the left hand bass line while improvising in the right which she handles quite well. In time these activities become more and more a part of student’s playing. Since starting improvisation lessons, Marin has composed multiple pieces on her own and thoroughly enjoys sitting down at the piano with creative freedom. My joy as an instructor is in bringing these skills to my students in their formative years when playing off the page can become just as normal as playing by reading notes.

Bradley and Leila hold camps for students and teachers in improvisation and creativity annually. I cannot stress the gratitude that I hold for these two as they started me down this path as an instructor, and now I can’t get enough of it! Leila is also the author of The iPad Piano Studio which is an outstanding resource for teachers wanting to advance lessons by using the latest technology. They are both a wealth of information, and I highly suggest researching all of their creative avenues, especially if you are a music instructor. If you don’t know where to start, check out and for some great teaching motivation and creative ideas.

At AJ’s Music Factory we take pride in allowing our students to be engulfed in the enjoyment of music and will continue to research ways to make lessons relevant in a quickly ever-changing world.

Vocal students at AJ’s Music Factory cover many topics in lessons: proper vocal technique, multiple genres, personal interpretation of music, vocal improvisation, technicalities of using a microphone, stage performance and confidence, etc. Last month our top focus was harmonizing and blending, two of the most important assets to being an accomplished vocalist. Throughout a series of lessons students interchanged harmony parts to allow their ears and eyes to learn different parts of the worship song, “Holy Spirit” from Francesca Battistelli‘s album If We’re Honest. As they came together and settled into their given parts the focus shifted to blending. “You know your part inside out. Now, listen to each other. Are you louder than the other? Where is the melody? Are you all in tune to each other?” These young ladies worked hard to create a beautiful blend, and they graciously helped to lead worship at Family of Christ Lutheran with the church band backing them last week (Double bonus: creating the next generation of worship leaders!).

Harmonizing and blending takes time. We work diligently to not only learn harmonies, but to be able to “hear the harmony” by ear without having to look at notes to help us. One way to start progressing in this area as a vocalist is to try singing harmonies with your favorite current songs on the radio.

Have a favorite song, but you don’t know where to start with harmony singing? We are here to help you! Excelling as a singer is a great joy, and we are grateful to help you on your vocal journey.