Author: Paula Dreyer



Lewis Carol

The struggle

I have a confession to make- I struggled with correctly spelling the word ‘Resiliency’ (twice). But, I paused, thought about it, course corrected, and moved on. I believe we are constantly being tested and our resiliency will make us or break us, in life and in music making. By the way, I am happy to report that by the third time I wrote the word ‘resiliency’, I had no troubles.

At the turn of the new year, I was *so* pumped to roll into 2020 like never before. I could not wait to see what this year has in store. I don’t know if it’s the start of a new decade, or simply that it is the year 2020 (how cool is that!?). I mean, how lucky are we to get to witness a year that functions as an expression and as an eyesight prescription! The number 2020 has so many meanings, and is so perfectly patterned. In 2020, I have multiple presentations for piano teachers scheduled, a family trip to Mexico, concerts of my original music booked, my album launch, local concerts performing in musicals, dance performances in Miami and Chicago choreographed to my original music, a yoga retreat in Hawaii with my lifelong bestie, family visits, and the list goes on. What could be better?

But! Within the first week of 2020, I have been hit with some very minor whammies. Within one week, the School of Rock musical I was scheduled to play for weeks in May did not get its’ rights approved, so it’s a no-go. Then, the director from the theater in the park show I was excited to play for this summer told me she would find someone else for various reasons, after I may or may not have changed my San Francisco solo concert that fell on the same weekend, and now the venue is completely booked in 2020. Yikes. Sadly, the church I adored playing for once a month last year suddenly doesn’t need me until April. My beloved long time student who is pure joy to work with decided she is taking a break until spring (hopefully), and the list continues.

The perspective

Each of these tiny tidbits of bad news feels like a little punch in the gut. I sit with the uncomfortable sensations in my body. I say to myself that these opportunities were not meant for me. I try to move forward with as much grace and humility as I can muster. I realize these are not life altering events. The international piano teaching community has been hit very hard with life changing events in the last few months and my heart aches for some inspiring teachers around the globe. This story is completely unrelated and simply shines a light on coping with mild set backs, not life altering traumatic events.

Some people might take all of these little set backs as a sign to throw in the towel. I see them as par for the course. I am realizing that I am an eternal optimist. My gut reaction often says, “Of course this will work! Of course they will say yes. Of course this new product launch will be wanted by all!” Then, if it doesn’t go as planned and hoped for (my product release, my grant application, my concert pitch, etc.), I am continually surprised. I think this optimistic (or is it delusional!?) outlook serves me well.

I am about to pitch my multi-media concert idea to presenters, knowing full well that in my industry, it is common to get 90-95% rejections, or even worse, you might never get a response at all. Regardless, I follow full steam ahead, heart fully engaged, hopes held high, clearly knowing that these are my odds. If I were constantly shutting things down before they had a chance, there would be a 100% guarantee of failure, rather than a 90-95% chance of rejection. Somehow, the 5-10% success rate keeps me believing that I have a massive chance of achieving all that I strive for. As the band Journey likes to say, Don’t Stop Believing!

Music making teaches us

The pursuit of music mastery mirrors life in so many ways and instills wonderful inner strength building qualities. In all phases of music learning, we must constantly keep an open and curious mind. We have to have a love of learning and an appreciation for the process. Those who expect quick miracles and rapid improvement are usually disappointed. We must have patience for ourselves and patience for the process. We must trust and accept ourselves where we are. Each day that we work on mastering a skill, we improve bit by bit. Over time, we are able to make huge strides with proper guidance and support. Sometimes we will fall, but if the spark and the desire are there for what we want to achieve, we must always get up, and try, try again.

What’s your take on going out on a limb and putting yourself out there? What have you done recently that required bravery and perseverance?

How do you teach resiliency to your students?

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretsky

Angels We Have Heard On High…

Do you believe in angels?

It’s kind of a fun thought, that people and events are sent to you as a sign or for reinforcement that you are on the right (or wrong) path. Being a creative artist who produces their own works (think composers, writers, choreographers, etc) requires quite a bit of courage, conviction, and determination. One must have full belief in themselves that one day, in the distant future, countless hours of hard work will be appreciated and fully worth the effort.

I am currently composing for my upcoming original solo piano album Central Star. No one is asking me to make the album. No one is commissioning the work. It is simply a calling that gives me so much gratification and fills my soul. This is a similar feeling that I had while making the first Little Gems for Piano book. I would stay up late at night and fill my days and evenings with composing, engraving, and editing. I took the process very seriously, although I had no idea where it would lead. After it was released, a few people around the music school where I teach would continually praise the book and ask me to write more. Almost every time I saw them, teacher Martha and her student Isaac would rave about the book and say, “You must write another level!” . These seemingly small encounters can do wonders for a creator and remind them that their work is worthwhile.

In my new town of Bend, Oregon, I am treating my composing and performing career as a full time job. Composing music, recording it, booking concerts for the multi-media collaborative performance, and transcribing it into a publishable book is a massive undertaking. Each piece has a correlating piece of art painted by Adrian Arias and will move in real time to the music. Sometimes I literally laugh out loud about how much I am taking on with this project. I also like to think of choreographer Kevin Jenkins as someone who was sent to me as a sign that I am on the right track. When I was in the beginning stages of the album creation, he reached out and asked if he could use my music for upcoming dance performances in 2020 in Chicago and Miami. I was thrilled!

I am fortunate enough to have a gig once a month playing at a gorgeous church in town. During the offertory, I am free to choose whatever piece I would like. I have been playing selections from the album, and in a way, these are the “premiere” performances! It is such a safe and comfortable way to perform the new works and get a sense for how people react. The feedback has been so heart warming and reaffirming that yes, I am on the right track! Some people said they have been brought to tears, some described how calm or transported they felt, and others inquired about when the sheet music and album would be available because they could not wait to get it. I am so grateful for every single person who came up to me and every comment I received. It is most important to have inner conviction that your work has value, but to have a few people along the way come up to you and praise your work can be truly uplifting and affirming.

How does all of this relate to teaching? Lately, I have been thinking about where my students’ natural gifts reside. We all have things we easily gravitate towards. Some students are wonderful performers, some love to compose, and some can improvise quite intuitively. I have been taking the time to point out my students’ strengths, having a conversation about it, and deciding with the student where to take and develop this skill. It is easy to take a more generic path for all students, but I think it’s important to carve out individual paths based on the student’s aptitude and interest. I have a student who is a junior in high school who plays at a high level. We could take all of our final lesson time to prepare for his Level 10 Royal Conservatory of Music Exam, but we have decided together it would be more worthwhile to prepare some Level 10 pieces, while also spending quite a bit of lesson time on his original compositions. Who knows where his propensity and passion for composing will lead. Sometimes I view piano teachers as angels, sent to students for a finite period of time to develop and instill their love of music.

p.s. If you haven’t seen my updated website, feel free to take a look around!

Inclusion in Music

I believe every person who walks into my studio with the desire to learn piano should be given the tools to soar and express themselves through music. I am talking about high achieving children ready to work their way up to a Beethoven Sonata some day, kids with behavior and learning issues, elderly people who have never touched the piano, adults who may have had a negative experience learning piano as a child but have always yearned to return to music making, and anyone and everyone in between.

With an open mind and an open heart, everyone has the potential to learn piano, although all students are not necessarily capable of achieving the same goals.  I teach children who speak multiple languages, attend the top schools in San Francisco, receive the highest scores in the area on their Royal Conservatory of Music exams, and achieve high results musically.  I also have students with learning differences who absolutely adore learning to improvise and compose and play beautiful rote pieces to compliment their note reading skills, and older folks who are not interested in learning how to read music but delight in recreating the melodies of their youth.

One inspiring, 82 year old student of mine also takes voice and French lessons, and is an avid tennis player and voracious reader. During his voice lessons, he focuses on singing his piano pieces.  He recently sang “Too Young” for me and was proud of how much he has learned and improved.  After his moving rendition, we both agreed he is sounding very much like Frank Sinatra. 😉

Any and all of these types of students are welcomed, embraced, celebrated, and nurtured in my studio. When we put blinders on and expect lessons to go one way only, and expect one kind of outcome for all students, we are doing a disservice to a large amount of the population.

Sometimes this open minded way of thinking can be erroneously associated with the more “average” teacher, and the teachers with all high achieving students have the liberty of screening students and being selective about who should be able to study with them. There are exceptions! After careful screening to assess the parental involvement, world-renowned teacher Irina Gorin embraces this inclusive approach with some of her students.  She is known for her warm, compassionate and effective approach that inspires students to play at the highest possible level.  However, if she encounters a sweet soul who struggles, she still maintains her high expectations, but sprinkles in more rote pieces during the beginning stages to supplement the slower pace.

It is truly inspiring to see what we are all capable of achieving with students who have to try harder in order to keep up in our demanding, competitive world.

What sorts of materials and modifications to do you use to accommodate all students who want to express themselves through music? How can you make greater connections and offer the gift of music making to more people who walk through your door?

MTNA Orlando

MTNA Orlando

Heading to the world of Disney!

The big national conferences are a huge deal for me in so many ways.  They evoke feelings of excitement, fear, awe, inspiration, exhaustion, renewal, humility, pride, and the occasional headache and nostalgia for delicious food.  This is my third conference.  I also attended MTNA San Antonio and NCKP Chicago (National Conference for Keyboard Pedagogy).

If you’ve never considered one of these conferences, I HIGHLY recommend them.  There are endless presentations all day long that you can pick and choose from, depending on your interests.  The nightly recitals are world class.  It’s so fun to meet and network with colleagues in person that you may or may not have already met online.  Dinners with colleagues may revolve around talking about teaching, or simply getting to know one another or catching up, as this is often the only time teachers around the globe get together.  There are masterclass and performances by students that have won composition and performance competitions.  I often don’t have time for these, unfortunately, as I am busy at my Little Gems for Piano booth, talking with returning customers and meeting new ones.

A Piano Teacher’s Favorite One Stop Shop

The exhibit hall is full of vendors selling everything from the newest inspiring compositions, to pianos, to benches, to teaching supplies, apps, and anything and everything in between.  I am not a natural sales person, but somehow I pull through for the Little Gems.  I think it’s because I feel so passionately about them, therefore it is easy for me to explain what they are and to encourage teachers to take a listen to the music.  Of course, there is always the fear in the back of my mind “What if no one buys any?  What if no one stops by to take a look?”  Thankfully, sales have gone well at all three conferences.  I always love talking with teachers about the Little Gems.  I found this quote by Disney in my hotel room to be so fitting: “When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.  And one thing it takes to accomplish something is courage.”- Walt Disney

My favorite customer this time around was a lovely woman from ICELAND!  She was very excited about all three books and said she would spread the good word to all of the piano teachers in Iceland.  When else can you have such an experience!?  Okay, maybe on Facebook, but it’s so much more rewarding in person.

Lifelong Learner

As I had three helpers at the booth, I was able to get away for some lectures.  I always loved school and I greatly look forward to attending the presentations.  It feels like such a gift to me, to just sit and soak in the knowledge and expertise of the presenter and walk away with new insights.  My favorites included a talk relating sports to music.  I didn’t think the topic would pertain to me so much (I was so wrong), but I went because of the presenter, Alan Huckleberry.  He talked about how coaches use technology to record the motions and then they review them in slow motion and piano teachers can easily do the same on an iPad.  He spoke about the attributes that sports instill in the kids and that music can help students attain these same traits and that it’s important to spell this out to parents.  My favorite part was all of the demonstrations showing that for any motion, there is a motion in the opposite direction first in order to put everything in motion.  For example, when you kick a ball, your foot goes back first and then it goes forward to make contact with the ball.  The same thing happens with piano.  In order to play a key, we first have a slight breathing motion up before we descend and sink into the key.  I have often explained this to students, but now I make a point of having them stand up and I tell them to pretend to kick a ball and have them analyze what happens first.  Then, we do the same thing pretending to throw a ball, etc.  When I relate it to the piano the concept seems to stick much more than if I just explain it without having them get up and physically try it.  He highly recommended the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.  I have it on my list of books to read, but have not read it…yet.  Read more about the comparison of sports to music from Alan Huckleberry’s blog.

This was my second experience to hear Jim Brickman play and speak.  For those who don’t know, he is a highly successful “new age” (would he call himself that!?) pianist who has sold 8 million records.  He is very charming and charismatic and is a great story teller.  I first heard of him through my grandmother who liked playing his music and then my cousins had me play his piece “Rocket to the Moon” at their wedding.   This lecture was supposed to teach how to compose and write songs.  A friend had said she was not going because she found him to be too anecdotal without enough practical applications to walk away with.  I suspected she might be right, but decided to give it a try.  Sure enough, 30 minutes in and he was still telling fun stories and playing away.  Nonetheless, it was enjoyable and I probably soaked in a few tidbits here and there.  One of my favorite presenters is Tim Topham.  He always knocks his talks out of the park and everyone leaves with loads of wonderful and practical information.

Truly Inspired

A real highlight of the trip was the opening concert by the group Time for Three.  If you haven’t heard them, you are missing out.  They are such a treat to be around.  They also performed at MTNA San Antonio and whenever I hear them, I think “These three people are doing exactly what they were born to do.  Their spirits are clearly shining through right now.”  Time for Three is a group of three young men (two violins and double bass) who were trained at top schools such as Juilliard and Curtis and then took their unbelievable technique and artistry to the next level and they sing, play their own arrangements of tunes in countless styles from pop, to classical to rock, and play original compositions.  They are fully invested in their music and they are pure joy to watch and listen to.  If they ever come to the Bay Area, I will certainly go to their show and tell all of my friends about it.  They really are a group that is not to be missed.  They are a prime example of the power of music and its’ potential to inspire and replenish the creative spirit.

Truly Uninspired

Ok, now for the food at the resort…  This really was the worst food I may have ever experienced.  Some food was unbearably salty, or extremely dry and overcooked.  The worst meal was a chef’s salad, where the hard boiled egg tasted like it had been cooked for one hour minimum and if you tried to throw it, it would bounce freely around the room without breaking.  And well, the cherry tomatoes that I was excited for in order to absorb a few nutrients- they were frozen!!! I couldn’t believe it.  I was very relieved to get off campus one night and have a proper meal at Disney Springs.


Perhaps the best part about the conference is seeing old friends and meeting new ones!  One of my helpers included an old friend from college and we had such a blast catching up and going to meals together.  Another helper is a customer who ended up becoming a wonderful friend.  Another booth worker is a local teacher who has a great new app called “Note Quest“.  Take a look for drilling note names and helping with intervals!  She was a delight to get to know as well and luckily she lives in the Bay Area so we hope to reconnect sooner rather than later.  I also had been in touch with the wonderful blogger and teacher Leila Viss and it felt so great to meet and chat in person. Finally, I got to meet my translator who came all the way from China and he is translating the Little Gems for Piano book into Chinese.  We hope to have it published in the fall!

Little Gems helpers

Leila Viss and Grace Lee


And one final benefit of conferences:  creative business ideas just appear out of nowhere!  As I was sitting at the booth, I had an inspiration to create a new product that I absolutely cannot wait to start developing in the fall.  I think it will be a wonderful way for students to know what will happen in the lesson and to promote independence, stability, motivation and self confidence.  Stay tuned for more details about this.

I have been working hard on the products and will be in touch as soon as they are ready!  I think about them all of the time and it is really all I want to work on right now.  Somehow, these projects such as my Little Gems, truly consume me.  I absolutely adore working on them and there is nothing I would rather be doing in my creative work life.  In a way, it reminds me of how Time for Three might feel- as if everything is aligned and they are doing exactly what they were intended to be doing- playing music.

Star Sighting

One last thing- I was star struck to get to talk with legendary pedagogical composer Martha Mier!  She told me in her southern drawl, “It’s a lot of work being in the business.” What a sweet woman.

Martha Mier!

Pedaling with a Pencil!?

Pedaling with a Pencil!?

You can teach a student how to pedal by using a pencil? And you step on the student’s foot? Is this some sort of torturous, antiquated teaching technique? Absolutely not! Students love it and it’s highly effective.

I find the pencil’s eraser side to be a wonderful teaching tool. There is something so simple about a pencil. You don’t have to hold it properly, and you don’t have to worry about your hand position or your posture. You simply plunk it down gently into the keys and the learning begins!

Pedaling is an aural art as well as a motor skill. If the student releases it too early, the sound is not connected. If they change the pedal too late, the sound is blurred. This simple teaching tool involving the pencil and stepping (gently, of course) on the student’s foot creates a smooth and continuous sound.

One of my students recently learned the chords and bass line to the popular tune “Stand by Me”. When she was comfortable playing the piece, I taught her how to pedal… with a pencil. In one lesson, we accomplished so much. First, I had her put the note down with the pencil while I stepped on her foot. I released her foot at the proper time and put it back down. Of course, I explained in words how to pedal, but sometimes I like to get right to the point and access the kinesthetic sense immediately.

After she was comfortable pedaling with the pencil, I had her play with one finger and move up the scale. Once she could feel the timing of the pedal, I no longer needed to squish her untied Converse high top shoes. After she could do this comfortably, I had her play the scale in the left hand.

The third and final step was to pedal while playing “Stand by Me”. It was clear and lovely and there was no overlapping in sounds. She learned so quickly by using this carefully sequenced approach. If I had simply explained how to pedal using only words (which would have sounded confusing) and instructed her to pedal while playing her tune, it would have taken longer to accomplish the same goal. I am quite sure it would have been overly blurry or there would be large gaps in the sound, and the student would feel confused and overwhelmed. With the pencil approach, each step was manageable and gave very clear results. She now feels and understands how to time the pedal and is confident in her new skill.

What interesting and “out of the box” teaching tools do you use?

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