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Let Them Eat Cake! Teaching Piano Using Stacked Engagement Layers


Piano playing requires the involvement and simultaneous coordination of many different parts of the brain and the mind.1 The aural center forms an image of the way a piece should sound—a goal for performance. Motor processing directs the arm, hand, and fingers in controlling the piano keys. Visual and reading processes are required for decoding musical notation, and skilled pianists are able to contextualize this information relative to deeper levels of understanding about musical patterns and forms, expressive and performative details, and stylistic conventions (Figure 1). Expert piano playing requires the ability to operate simultaneously and masterfully in all domains in real-time while listening to what is actually coming out of the piano and making appropriate adjustments. 

Figure 1: Domains of Piano Playing

Novice pianists do not yet command this intricate coordination of brain activity. Pedagogical approaches thus typically involve careful step-by-step instruction, often focusing on only one domain at a time or otherwise limiting context. For example, a teacher might promote mastery of a single melodic phrase through modeling and having the student imitate. Such rote teaching uses the aural domain to build motor skills and can be very useful for less experienced learners. However, teaching exclusively in this manner for too long may also inhibit development in other domains, such as reading skills. One all-too-common teaching procedure is to focus exclusively on one aspect of a piece at a time: learn the notes the first week, add dynamics at the next lesson, add pedaling the next week, etc. Unfortunately, this approach often results in a performance that is devoid of expression and life. When the pressure is on, the student often reverts to simply playing correct pitches as they did at the initial point of instruction. In seeking to simplify the motor aspects of playing to a manageable level, teachers may inadvertently narrow students' engagement to a point where the task bears little or no resemblance to the piece they are working on. Years ago, I heard Brian Chung give a speech at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in which he compared playing the piano beautifully to eating cake. He pointed out that too many teachers prioritize development of technical fundamentals and reading skills over providing musically meaningful experiences for their students. Chung went on to lament that, tragically, most students will quit before they ever get to taste the cake! 

The challenges inherent in planning instruction for less-skilled pianists are magnified when teaching in groups. Despite efforts to group learners as homogenously as possible, variation in abilities between students makes matching instruction exactly to the level of each student quite challenging in a music classroom.2 Jerome Bruner, who significantly contributed to cognitive learning theories in the last century, pointed out that instruction must start where the learner is and move forward from there,3 going on to note that "[t]he to devise materials that will challenge the superior student while not destroying the confidence and will-to-learn of those who are less fortunate."4 Many years ago, I noticed that my university graduate teaching assistants often struggled to engage all the students in their piano classes. These novice teachers needed a tool to help them plan and sequence instruction to accommodate learners of differing abilities in a manner that promotes musical mastery. This sparked my development and articulation of an instructional model that I call "stacked engagement layers." Stacked engagement layers represent a way to build mastery in developing pianists by limiting motor-skill coordination and complexity while simultaneously promoting musical engagement and a holistic awareness of the piece.

Essentially, the stacked engagement layer approach represents a specific kind of instructional scaffolding. Scaffolding, described by Bruner and others, is an apprenticeship approach to learning in which students who cannot otherwise complete a learning task are able to do so with help or guidance from teachers or learners working at advanced levels. Scaffolding usually implies a model of learning through incremental assistance whereby mastery is "constructed," assisted by interactions with others, both peers and experts.5

One of the more familiar models for scaffolding invokes Lev Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development" (ZPD), in which learning can be viewed as a series of concentric rings (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Steve Wheeler, "IN® SlideShare—Steve Wheeler," http://slideshare. net/timbuckteeth. Used by permission.

Students are challenged to learn by teachers or other learners working at the next ring outward—the zone of proximal development. Beyond the ZPD are many additional rings, but students cannot function in those rings yet even with help. In the Vygotsky model, there are thus only two rings (levels of mastery) in operation at any given time: the ring of the student's current skill, and the next immediately outward ring. Of course, the challenge of applying Vygotsky's model in classroom teaching is that there are many different zones of proximal development in play.6 Instruction tailored to some students' zones may not fit other students. 

The proposed stacked engagement layer model (Figure 3), crucially differs from Vygotsky's model in that it is cross-sectional, allowing the teacher to scaffold instruction for many individual students simultaneously. Even while a learner actively engages in one layer, she is simultaneously exposed to any number of more advanced layers, gaining aural experience with and musical awareness of the whole. Each layer represents a point of progressive musical engagement, with layers logically structured from simple to more complex. 

As with all instruction, it is critical to challenge students without overwhelming them.7 Each student should find a layer that presents challenge, but is fully achievable within a reasonable time. Once students master a layer, they can progress to another layer. It may not be necessary for each student to proceed through every single layer. While Figure 3 shows only three layers, the numbers of layers are indeterminate. Most pieces and musical activities can be divided into many more than three layers. In addition to simplifying motor or cognitive demands of a piece, it is also possible to add layers of complexity beyond what is notated on the musical score. 

There are a few principles for teachers to remember when devising effective engagement layers. First, each layer should bear musical resemblance to the whole. Performing one isolated aspect of a piece, such as playing only the notes of a passage out of tempo, should not be considered a layer. Each layer should be performable against the musical whole, and all layers should be performable simultaneously. Secondly, each layer should involve the student actively playing or doing. Students should be singing at minimum, but preferably also activating the hands or fingers. Talking about or analyzing the piece does not represent a layer; these are preparatory steps. Performance of rhythm usually constitutes an extremely effective base layer. Finally, teachers need to build musicality and attentiveness to sound into every single layer. It is never enough for the student to simply play correct rhythmic notations or pitches devoid of expression or inflection. Students engaging in more complex layers are continuously modeling sound for students at simpler engagement layers.

Looking at a few practical examples that might be encountered in the classroom or teaching studio will help illuminate how the stacked engagement layer model works. Figure 4 shows a brief sight-reading piece for use in an intermediate piano class, followed by seven applicable layers. It is worth mentioning that these same layers could also be practiced progressively by an individual student working to master this excerpt.

Layer One: Use a tennis ball to feel the meter while singing

the melody—bounce (on beat 1)–catch in the same hand (beat 2)–pass to the other hand (beat 3).

Layer Two: Play the melody in the right hand (RH) while tapping a steady quarter pulse in the left hand (LH). Give careful attention to naturally shaping the melody as you did while singing it. 

Layer Three: Play blocked chords (one per measure on the downbeat) in LH, while playing only the downbeats of the melody with the RH. While playing, sing the complete melody on a neutral syllable with attention to shaping phrases. 

Layer Four: Play the melody as notated in the RH with LH blocked chords on downbeats, with continued attention to shaping phrases. 

Layer Five: Play the notated melody in the RH with LH blocks on each quarter pulse, with continued attention to shaping phrases. 

Layer Six: Play as written. 

Layer Seven: Play using a different accompaniment pattern appropriate to the meter. 

Figure 5 shows an improvisation activity. As with the sight-reading piece above, all layers of this improvisation can be performed simultaneously and are clearly representative of the musical whole.

Layer One: Play LH blocked chords in whole notes to master chord shapes and sounds. 

Layer Two: While playing the LH blocked chords, improvise a RH five-finger melody on downbeats only. Start and end on G (the first scale degree) and make your melody mostly stepwise. If you play a dissonance in the RH, simply resolve upward or downward by step.

Layer Three: While playing the LH blocked chords, improvise a RH five-finger melody using steady quarter notes against the chords provided. Resolve any dissonances by step. Start and end your melody on G, and end with a whole note as shown. 

Layer Four: Improvise the rhythm of the RH in addition to the pitches while playing LH chords.

Layer Five: While improvising the RH melody, add an appropriate accompaniment pattern in the LH. 

Layer Six: Using the RH thumb, add chord tones underneath your melody on downbeats while playing an accompaniment pattern in the LH. 

Teachers can also use stacked layers with individual students. Conceptualizing instruction in this way can help teachers anticipate and more accurately diagnose problems and customize a practice strategy suited to the needs of the student at a particular point in time. Using engagement layers for the first ten measures of "Spinning Song" by Ellmenreich (Figure 6) can help the student build coordination for the syncopation, working from larger to smaller gestures with compelling rhythmic inflection.

Layer One: Play LH on the piano with a light, bouncy touch, feeling the spaces between each key stroke. 

Layer Two: Play LH on the piano, singing the RH using lyrics of the student's or teacher's devising. Inflection of the lyrics must match the inflection of the rhythm. (For example: "Come and sing this song, plaaaaaaaay a-long"). 

Layer Three: Noticing that the RH consists of two-measure patterns, work on the RH gesture playing only those notes circled in red. Keeping fingers close to the keys, allow arm weight to drop into the accented note and use a bouncy upward touch for the staccato chord that follows. Play this reduced RH gesture against the bouncy notes of the LH as written. 

Layer Four: Work on the smaller gesture of the RH melody—the sixteenths and downbeat of beat two shown in the blue boxes. This will require quick finger movements accompanied by a tiny under-arc of the forearm as the fingers find their optimal alignment. Play just this pattern against the bouncy LH part, omitting the other RH pitches. 

Layer Five: Play both hands as written, while singing the lyrics devised in Layer Two to promote good rhythmic inflection.

The stacked engagement layer approach supports several crucial learning objectives for pianists. First, and most importantly, students are always having musically rewarding experiences, which helps sustain motivation. This is no small thing, because building skills at the piano crucially hinges upon how deeply students engage and maintain their focus over time. An analogy can be made to video gaming. It is not necessary to be an expert to have an immersive and enjoyable experience playing Mario Kart™. It is enough for a beginner at the game to simply keep their cart on the track. Highly proficient players enjoy maximizing points by collecting all the possible bonuses; novices do not even know where to look for these opportunities. Expertise is built by immersing oneself in the game, taking risks, exploring, and by playing alongside more experienced players.

Secondly, stacking engagement layers allows teachers to engage all students, simultaneously, in the same piece or activity while tailoring instruction for individual students. Students maintain holistic awareness while they directly participate at a layer suitable for their current level of development. In this respect, the stacked layer approach bears resemblance to the Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP) Model and Project, which was developed to help public school ensemble directors stay focused on musicianship and musical participation as they address learning objectives.8 In its inclusivity, the stacked engagement layer approach also echoes the universal design for learning model, often used in special education settings to engage the unique capabilities of each student in a classroom.9

Another benefit of stacking layers is that this approach models critical thinking and concretizes effective practice strategies for our students. Initially, teachers articulate the problem to be solved, then model the engagement layers (steps) for solving that problem. As students gain experience, they can be encouraged to define the problem themselves, and logically derive and sequence their own engagement layers. Actively building metacognitive and problem-solving skill in this way increases student efficacy and helps them become more independent learners.10

While I suspect that this proposed new model codifies what many highly effective teachers do instinctively, intentional implementation of stacked engagement layers can enhance instructional effectiveness and learner motivation and mastery. Planning and delivering instruction using stacked engagement layers inspires creativity and ingenuity, promotes developmentally appropriate sequencing, and most importantly, keeps the focus on providing musical experiences for all students.


1. Lutz Jäncke, "From Cognition to Action," in Music Motor Control and the Brain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 25–26. 

2. Christopher Fisher, Teaching Piano in Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 98. 

3. Jerome Bruner, Preface to 1977 edition of The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), ix. 

4. Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 70. 

5. P. Cobb, "Where is the Mind? Constructivist and Sociocultural Perspectives on Mathematical Development." Educational Researcher 23 (1994):13–20. 

6. A.L. Brown, "The Advancement of Learning." Educational Researcher 23 (1994): 4–12. 

7. As described by both Vygotsky's zone of proximal development and in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" state. Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, (New York: Harper, 1990): 50–67. 

8. Laura Sindberg, "The Evolution of Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP)"—A Model for Teaching Performing with Understanding in the Ensemble Setting. Contributions to Music Education, 36 (2009): 25–39. 

9. CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from on September 8, 2019. 

10. Kathleen Hogan and Michael Pressley, "Afterword: Becoming a Scaffolder of Students' Learning," In Scaffolding Student Learning: Instructional Approaches and Issues, eds. Kathleen Hogan and Michael Pressley, (Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1997: 188.

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