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9 minutes reading time (1730 words)

Piano Pentathlon and Piano Hullabaloo: Celebrating the piano

Piano Pentathlon and Piano Hullabaloo: Celebrating the piano

​Many music organizations host annual festivals for student pianists each year where students play in a master class atmosphere, are critiqued, and are given suggestions for improvement. These learning opportunities can be extremely valuable, especially for those preparing auditions and recitals. 

Yet, I have often wondered exactly what is "festive" about this scenario? At best, students look apprehensive as they prepare to enter the performance area. Afterward, they may look pleased or inspired, but more often they just look relieved, or even frustrated—depending upon their performance and the interaction with the master teacher. 

When used as a noun, the definition of the word "festival" is a day or period of celebration. So I decided to plan a piano festival that would try to fit this definition. 

The goal was to present activities that would yield pure enjoyment and be educational at the same time. Gradually, a plan for the festival was formulated. Here is an outline that proved successful.

Find a building that has at least one good piano. If there are multiple pianos or additional keyboard instruments, that is even better. Music stores, churches, schools, and local college music buildings are good places to start. Consider ease of parking and if there is a cost to rent the space. Then set a date and time well in advance of the event. 

Publicize the event. The first event was presented as The Piano Pentathlon. There were five keyboard opportunities, music games, balloons, popcorn, crazy photo opportunities, art projects related to music, and a certificate of participation. The event was free of charge so more people would be encouraged to attend. Emails were sent out to area teachers, inviting the teachers and their students to attend. An article was sent to local papers, and notices were posted in my studio newsletter and on my studio website, providing some free advertisement. Social media helped spread the word as well. Handouts to students approximately six weeks prior to the event encouraged them to bring their friends and families. I asked for pre-registration to have an idea of how many participants might attend.

As people arrived on the big day, they were greeted with signs, balloons, and a welcome table listing activities. There was also a stack of participation certificates available to all who tried at least five different events and/or games. High-school piano helpers were stationed at different tables set up in the corridor to assist with games and activities. A few teachers were also in place to lead certain activities.

The Piano Pentathlon, a two-hour festival held in 2013 that had about seventy-five participants, evolved into a bigger celebration in 2015 that included approximately 200 people. The Piano Hullabaloo was four hours in length, and new activities were incorporated. The following list was compiled from both events.

A collage of students and families participating in various musically inspired events.

Performance options

​1) Playing the concert grand piano on stage: Students had been encouraged to prepare something to play, either with music or from memory, but playing was not mandatory. An applause sign on a stick further encouraged the audience to participate. For the Hullabaloo, I hired a small back-up band. Students and audience members could play a simple improvisation, blues pattern, or other piece with a band of professional musicians playing behind them. The relaxed atmosphere set the tone for the day and every available playing slot quickly filled.

2) Playing a prepared grand piano in the studio: The piano was prepared by using potato chip clips, ping pong balls, tin mint cans, and a small tambourine sitting on the strings. 

3) Playing a small four-octave portative pipe organ in a practice room.

4) Playing a synthesizer in a second practice room. 

5) Playing a "Scale and Chord Piano" in a third practice room: For every chord pattern, scale, or arpeggio played, students could add a cardboard brick to build a "musical house"—reinforcing the concept that scales and chords are the building blocks of music.

Musical Twister. Black electrician's tape was used to make a grand staff on the back of a Twister vinyl sheet, along with a simple spinner that pointed to left or right hand or foot and the designated note, e.g., G space-note or B line-note. Students were to hold the position for ten seconds before the next spin was announced.

The Human Staff. Younger students stretched out on a white sheet spread on the floor. A helper placed five long strips of heavy dark cloth (representing the staff lines) across the student saying head line, shoulder line, tummy line, knee line, and foot line as they did it. Parents took pictures to show the students how it looked.

Giant One-Octave Homemade Wooden Keyboard with raised black keys and wooden letters. Students put letters on the keyboard with closed eyes by feeling the letters and black keys. 

MaKey MaKey Invention Kit Demonstration. Using a laptop, internet access, and the inexpensive MaKey MaKey wire hook-up device, any object can become a musical keyboard—fruits, vegetables, and even people! Students loved playing broccoli, celery, apples, bananas, and even their friends to make piano and bongo sounds. 

Improvising with the back up band was a very popular activity.
An old upright piano, destined for the ditch, took on star status when some high school students splatter painted it in preparation for the hullabaloo. The new artwork was placed at the entrance to greet the public.

Rhythm activities

​1) Plastic drinking cups were available to play the "Cup Song." Tutorials were found on YouTube by searching "Cup Song" from the movie Pitch Perfect. A student helper facilitated this activity. 

2) Orff and drum circles were available at designated times in the schedule. The drum circle was extremely popular.

Other activities

Bingo Games. Composer Bingo was a purchased game. Fine Bingo was a homemade game using simple musical symbols.

Musical Odyssey Scavenger Hunt involved a check sheet that took adventurers through the building as they searched for clues to find a Mozart poster, information about Beethoven, various musical objects, and even a tricycle ride that involved participants pedaling across the imaginary "Atlantic Ocean" and riding until they reached floor maps of Beethoven's and Mozart's birthplaces.

Music Whiz Quiz. A box contained different levels of musical theory questions. There were three ways to play this game.

1. Ring the Bell (for two players). Two bells, such as those used at store counters, are needed. The question is read while the two players keep their hands on the table. The first one to ring the bell gets to try to answer the question being read. If the first player is incorrect, the other person gets to try to answer.

2. Pass the Ball (for multiple players). A player holds a ball while answering the question that is read to her. She keeps answering questions as long as she answers correctly. When she misses, she passes the ball to the next player.

3. The Plunger (for multiple players). The reader holds a plunger several inches above the table while a music statement is read. The players each have a cork tied to a long string. The corks are nested in the center of the table directly under the plunger. Each student must determine if the statement is true or false. If true, they leave their corks in place. If false, they must pull the strings with their corks before the plunger comes down on the table catching their corks. The game continues until there is only one person left. The next round starts with everyone playing. The excitement level is high.

Stump the Piano Chump featured a teacher demonstrating (with help from the audience) an aleatoric compositional technique using dice.

Key Signature Dominoes. This is a purchased game that matches the key signature with the corresponding number of sharps or flats.

Roll-Up Keyboards. Students were encouraged to try all the buttons and just have fun. Three keyboards were placed on a round table, and these stations were busy most of the time.

The area music store set up a digital piano demonstration using an iPad. Students were trying new technology and singing along at times. The store also provided a free ukulele in a drawing.

There were also tables that invited participants to create their own musical crossword puzzle or musical poetry, or play a self-directed composer memory game. There were family-friendly activities that worked even for those with no musical background.

Old piano hammers were glued together to create a group art project
Self-guided games like this key signature domino game encouraged participants to work together in a non-competitive atmosphere to solve the puzzle.

Combining the arts

Make and Take. Legal sized sheets of paper and a cup of colored pencils were placed on a table. Students could create a piece of art that celebrated music in any way they saw fit.

Musical Sidewalk Chalk Experience. Students could make musical chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside.

Group Piano Art Project. The art teacher at our school cannibalized an old junk piano. A box of old piano hammers was set on a table. Two older students, experienced with using a hot glue gun, put the piano hammers on the large foam board wherever the younger students desired. The art piece grew into a tower of moving piano hammers.

Reader's Theatre was a self-guided skit that involved traveling back in time to visit Mozart. The costumes (loaned by the drama department) and the scripts were placed in a room with a long table where participants could read through the skit together.

Photo Opportunities. One of the helpers wandered around the exhibits. They asked parents for permission to take pictures before snapping the shots. There were also three foam boards with outlines of Beethoven and Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart. Large holes were cut out for their heads, so students could take pictures.


​For the first event, the school popcorn machine, operated by a parent, provided hot, delicious popcorn. Water was available at the water fountains. At the second event, a non-profit club hosted a refreshment stand, using this as a fundraiser for their organization.


​Both of these events were celebrations, true piano festivals! Feedback from students and guests was extremely positive. To view a video of a Piano Pentathlon activity, please visit this page of our digital edition at

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