10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list this year

At the risk of dating myself and revealing my eclectic taste in movies, I'm feeling a little like Steve Martin's character in "The Jerk.” In case you haven't seen the movie, Martin plays a “dim-witted”poor man who finds riches and loses it all again. Upon discovering he’s lost everything, he declares, “All I need is this ashtray, this ashtray and this paddle game, this ash tray, this paddle game and this remote control, this ashtray, this…”you get the point. Just in case you want a throwback moment, I’ve included the scene below.

Why am I feeling this way? Because when asked to make a list of top apps for this year, I realized that all the apps included in last year’s list remain in the must-have column.  So consider the new list below an addendum. All I need are last years apps and…

1) Camera (free with purchase of any smart phone or tablet) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

It’s easy to forget one of the apps that I use the most—the camera. It is a terrific tool for

  • Revelation: a digital mirror for reflecting hand position and technical issues
  • Performance Prep: the focus required to perform for the camera simulates the pressure of recital and competition performances
  • Magical moments: an easily accessed camera captures those priceless moments of fun during lessons.

Found on most smart phones and tablets


2) Pages (free with any new Apple device) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

Recently, I enjoyed the opportunity to share the joys of teaching with the iPad on the East Coast. This was the very first trip that I did NOT bring a laptop and only brought my iPad Air in the LogicTech Keyboard case. I never missed my laptop thanks to the keyboard but also credit goes to the powerful Pages app. It creates documents that can be easily exported as PDF’s or Word docs and more. With the magic of iCloud the docs can be easily accessed on my laptop as well.

iOS only


3) Keynote (free with any new Apple device) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

Slides for presentations and group lessons are easily created on this highly versatile and user-friendly app. With the proper adaptors, the iPad can reflect the slides on an HDTV or a projector. There’s no need to bring my lap top for presentations thanks to this app.

iOS only


4) iMovie (free with any new Apple device) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

Any video taken with the iPad camera can be quickly exported to and edited in iMovie. Basic templates and tools keep this video editor exceptionally intuitive and ideal for uploading favorite student performances to YouTube or other video hosting platforms.

iOS only


5) Piano Maestro (free for verified teachers and their students)10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

Piano Maestro appears on this list as well as last year’s because it continues to morph into a sight-reading skill builder that many teachers don’t or won’t teach without. A number of method books are found in the app’s library as publishers like Alfred Music and various composers are seeing the success and student appeal of the app. Note this year it has changed names from Piano Mania to Piano Maestro. In addition, what was once a subscription-based app that charged not only teachers but students to use it, is now free for all verified teachers and their students.

iPad only


6) Sight Read Plus  ($7.99, prices vary for each app) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

SightReadPlus is making a second appearance this year because the developer that provided 4800 sight-reading exercises in major five-finger patterns has added two new editions: SightRead Minor and HanonPlus.

iPad only


7) Sprout Beat (free with upgrade to $19.99) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

This “new kid on the block”is a favorite of many piano teachers because it offers 400+ music worksheets at a mere finger tip. The free version includes 25 downloads while the upgrade provides access to a categorized library of worksheets with weekly additions. The colorful worksheets can be used repeatedly as students write answers directly onto the iPad. With a tap of the trash can icon, completed worksheets are cleared and ready for use by another student. Although there is no need for paper or ink, there is an option to print the worksheets if desired.

iPad only


8) ForScore ($9.99) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list for 2015

As I collect more digital scores, this score reader has become a necessity. Although there are numerous features to highlight, pairing my iPad with a bluetooth foot pedal that automatically turns pages while viewing a score in forScore is one of my favorites. Also, during my online improvisation lessons, I record examples of Bradley Sowash demonstrating styles to be used with an assigned lead sheet. These recordings are housed with the score and are immediately accessible by tapping on the screen which greatly assists my practice between lessons.

iPad Only


9) Interactive Listening ($14.99) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list

Ideal for high school students looking to explore the history of music, this comprehensive music appreciation ebook offers a dynamic learning experience. The text, videos, pictures, and listening tests guarantee engagement and encourage critical thinking.

iPad only


10) Staff Wars ($0.99) 

10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list

Interested in a fun contest for students to improve pitch recognition skills? Use Staff Wars and challenge them to earn the highest score possible in treble staff mode. Then ask them to beat that high score in bass staff mode. Ask students to post their high scores on your studio white board. Seeing their peers' scores will motivate them to reach even higher levels.

There's really nothing like a friendly competition inspired by sci-fi to build basic skills.

iOS, Android, Desktop


Bonus: Decide Now ($0.99) 10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list

Acckkk..I was aiming to limit this list to 10 apps but here’s one more. It is not related to music but I use it ALL the time during lessons. Decide Now allows you to create an infinite number of wheels. Students love to spin to see who will perform first at a group lesson or to determine what key for a transposition challenge or…

iOS only

I could go on and on…Practice+, Notability, Dropbox, Classical Masters, Note Squish, Evernote…there are SO many more to include. They’ll have to wait until next year!

In case you are interested in learning about even more apps, visit my Music App Directory. Wondering how to use apps in your studio? Check out my column in Clavier Companion called “Teaching with Apps” and my book,The iPad Piano Teacher: Keys to Unlocking the Power of Apps, now distributed by Alfred Music.

10 Apps that should be on your Christmas list this year

Leila Viss owns a tech-savvy piano studio. She’s an organist, blogs at, writes for Clavier Companion and authored The iPad Piano Studio. She is cofounder of 88 Creative Keys Camp with Bradley Sowash, assisted in the 2013, 2014 MTNA “Jazz/Pop” Tracks and serves on the NCKP 2015 committee.

Songwriting Tips for Young Musicians

The Young Musician's Guide to Songwriting

If you include songwriting and/or music composition as a part of piano lessons, you already know how useful this can be to the study of structure, melody, harmony, and rhythm. Examining lyrics, poetry, and language also inspires students musically, in terms of developing musical phrases, as well as approaching stresses and rhythm.  Even just a little exposure to these ideas can help to motivate students.  Not only are they interpreting music to be played on their instruments, they are learning to analyze and evaluate music as a part of the creative process.  As a result, other composer's pieces begin to take on new meaning as well.

Read more: Songwriting Tips for Young Musicians

Piano Safari

Piano Safari is an innovative new piano method for children ages 4-10. Authors Katherine Fisher and Julie Knerr have shared with us some insights behind their method, including the notable influences of Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Marvin Blickenstaff, and Richard Chronister. We are delighted to share our conversation here and hope you enjoy getting to know Piano Safari!


We love the captivating cover of Piano Safari. How did you decide on an animal / jungle theme for the series?

The animal theme grew naturally as we worked on the method. In the early stages of designing the series, we had frequent discussions about the subject matter of the pieces in the Repertoire Books. We desired to use a timeless theme that would appeal to students. As it seems most children are intrigued by animals, the majority of our pieces began to take shape around this central idea. Also, using specific animals to teach technique makes the exercises much more memorable and imaginative.

What were some of your influences in writing Piano Safari?

We met at the University of Oklahoma during our graduate study and realized that we both had always dreamed of writing a piano method. We each had experience in teaching from many methods, and found that we had ideas in common about what we feel are best practices in helping students learn to read, understand, and love music.

Among the most notable influences are:

  • Frances Clark and the Music Tree Method. We agree with Clark, Goss, Chronister, Blickenstaff, and others that the intervallic approach to reading provides students with the best foundation for becoming musically literate in reading notation.

  • Suzuki. We agree with many of the philosophies of the Suzuki method, most notably the importance of learning pieces by rote in order to become musically literate in hearing and understanding music.

  • Dr. Julie Knerr’s dissertation research (

    Julie interviewed prominent teachers from around the United States to learn how they teach technique to beginners. The seven Animal Techniques found in Piano Safari Repertoire Book 1 (also found in the Piano Safari Technical Exercises and Rote Pieces) are the result of this research. Students who master the motions found in the Animal Techniques develop the ability to move comfortably and confidently around the keyboard and have have a solid foundation for all future piano technique.

    We have put our own unique stamp on the ideas gained from other teachers and methods. For example, we composed our own Rote Pieces, because we believe that the best pieces to teach by rote to beginners are those that have clear and easily understood patterns. Not every piece is best learned by rote.

    In our use of the intervallic approach for the Reading Pieces and Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards, we have incorporated Landmark Notes (Treble G and Bass C) to provide anchors for reading. We also provide extended reinforcement for each interval before moving to the next interval.

    In this way, we feel we have taken the excellent ideas laid out by pedagogues of previous decades to the next level by refining these ideas and combining them in unique ways.

Piano Safari features a variety of types of pieces, including many to be taught by rote. What is the purpose behind the rote pieces? How are students and teachers intended to use them?

As we designed Piano Safari, it was our goal to create a series that would develop a well-rounded, musically literate student. In our opinion, many of the mainstream methods focus heavily on reading and lean less toward developing the ear. Our antidote to this is the inclusion of pieces that are more difficult than the student’s current reading level. We call these “Rote Pieces” because students primarily learn them by modeling after the teacher and by listening. There seems to be some misunderstanding of this term. Some teachers fear that introducing pieces by “rote” will leave students forever dependent and unable to read. This is not at all true. We have found that students who learn pieces by rote, or modeling, typically have a more sensitive ear and a better developed technique. Also, when paired with a strong intervallic reading approach, Rote Pieces actually enhance the reading student’s development. For more information about our philosophy on teaching by rote, please read this article:

Tell us about the intervallic reading approach. How does this benefit the student?

The work of Richard Chronister was a revelation to us in terms of how to best teach children to read music notation. The University of Oklahoma Pedagogy Library had his Keyboard Arts Method (out of print), and we were fascinated by how Chronister led students to understand shapes, contours, and intervals throughout his method.

Advanced pianists who are excellent sight readers do not read music note by note by letter name. This would be inefficient and laborious. Instead, excellent sight readers see chord shapes and phrase contours that translate into motions in the hand. Through use of the intervallic reading approach, young students can be trained to read by contour also.

Of course, students do need to learn the note names on the staff (which we introduce at the beginning of Piano Safari Repertoire Book 2), but we have found that students become more confident and fluent readers when they are taught to read by seeing the directional patterns of the various intervals (2nds, 3rds, etc.). Students find the beginning note of a piece or exercise and then read by interval and contour from that note.

We have found that because students become so adept at discovering patterns and contours of phrases, they begin to read their Rote Pieces because they are able to see patterns in even complex scores.

Our goal was to provide a systematic and thorough approach to learning to read notation and to provide students with many opportunities to practice this in the Reading Pieces and Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards. Teachers who use other methods (Suzuki, Faber, etc.) tell us that they and their students love the Sight Reading & Rhythm Cards, which work with any method and age of student.

Piano Safari's website offers many resources, including different types of videos - reminder, instructional, and performance videos. What is the function of each type?

Some of the resources are oriented toward the student and parent, and others toward the teacher.

For the student and parent we provide:

  • Reminder Videos for home practice. After students have learned a piece by rote in the lesson, they may view it again online not only to identify starting positions but also to be reminded of the technical gestures as well as artistic elements.

  • Performance Videos are clips of children performing Piano Safari pieces. We feel it is motivating for students to view other pianists their age performing these pieces.

For the teacher we provide:

  • Instructional Videos that contain clips of us teaching sample rote pieces. This is anew style of teaching for some, so we thought it might be helpful to see “rote teaching” in action.

  • Step-by step Teacher’s Guides for all of our materials. These may be downloaded and printed for free.

  • Mini Essays and Blog on various pedagogical topics.

    What would you like to tell teachers who are new to Piano Safari?

    We know it is often a challenge to learn something new, and we thank you for considering our method. Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions and comments. We always love to hear from our customers! 

Do you have a question for the authors of Piano Safari? They would love to hear from you in the comment section below this post!

Announcing our costume contest winner!


Brahms and Clara Schumann

Congratulations to Buddy, winner of our musical costume contest! Buddy’s photo was submitted by Clara Schumann (Lydia Beasley Kneer) and Johannes Brahms (Joe Kneer). We couldn’t resist Buddy with his Yamapaw and musical family. Buddy’s family will be awarded $100 to Neil A. Kjos Music Company! Special thanks to our friends at Kjos for generously donating this prize and supporting Clavier Companion’s Halloween fun.

Musical Costume Contest


Combine your love of music with your Halloween costume this year! ThePianoMag is hosting a music-themed costume contest. Costume ideas include composers, famous musicians, or anything piano related. Share your photos on our Facebook page or by email to enter our contest. We’ll announce a winner next week to receive an exciting musical prize - $100 to Neil A. Kjos Music Company!

How to enter:

  1. Dress up in a musical costume. Take a picture!
  2. Post your photo to Clavier Companion’s Facebook Page by Monday, November 3rd, 11:59 pm EDT. Make sure to tag Clavier Companion and Neil A. Kjos Music Company.
  3. Not on Facebook? Email your photo instead to
  4. Stay tuned on our Facebook page and blog to find out the best costume winner!

Contest Rules:

 Any content deemed inappropriate by Clavier Companion will be deleted. By submitting photos, readers agree to the images’ use on Clavier Companion’s website and social media. This contest is not affiliated with or sponsored by Facebook.