piano lessons

An Ode to Edith

by Dianna Phelps

When I was growing up my favorite hour each week was the glorious hour I spent at Re-Creations Musicke Shoppe.  It was a quirky little place, jam-packed with any and everything you could think of that is related to music.  It was literally stuffed wall-to-wall.  At first glance you might think you were in an episode of Hoarders but after taking a closer look, you saw sheer magic. Everywhere you looked you could see an instrument and I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill guitars, pianos, horns and drums, although they were there too. I’m talking about instruments like a harpsicord, several hand-made dulcimers, an accordion and my favorite: a washboard. Every week during that holy hour, my brother and I had back-to-back, 30-minute music lessons.  When I was either waiting for my lesson to begin or waiting for my brother’s lesson to end, I wandered around the store exploring and taking in all of the exotic and fascinating things my small mind had never seen before.  I pretended I knew how to play all of the instruments and daydreamed about a world in which everything seemed possible.

We first began taking music lessons when we were 9 and 10 years old.  We had recently moved in with our Grandmother who knew that we both enjoyed learning to play the recorder while attending our previous school.  Even more, she knew that keeping us busy and engaged in something we enjoyed would help to ease the transition of our move, so she signed us up for recorder lessons.  Enter one Ms. Edith Duhon, the town music teacher.

Ms. Duhon was in her mid to late 50s, rocked the most pristine hair-do consisting of a neat bun with a tightly secured bow fastened directly underneath.  She was an anomaly for our small town.  She was well-educated, well-travelled, had no children and married late in life.  In rural Louisiana that was shocking, unheard of even.  I remember being instantly intrigued and smitten by her.  She was utterly brilliant, playing to some extent every instrument in her store.  Who does that? I surely had never met anyone that talented and I’m not sure I have since.

During one recorder lesson, Ms. Duhon had my brother and I sing a song together with her. She had one good listen and said, “Dianna, you need to find your voice.” What a lovely way of saying I was practically tone deaf.  She was like that. She could love you and make you feel valued while simultaneously telling you the cold, hard truth. After a while, I grew bored with recorder and my brother moved on to piano. She suggested I take voice lessons but I opted to stop taking lessons altogether. She didn’t give up though.  She would see me when my grandmother would pick my brother up from his lesson and would remind me that I needed to work on finding my voice and she could help me do it.  She was very convincing and it didn’t take long for me to begin taking voice lessons.  During high school, she would use this same persistence to keep me in lessons when I wanted to quit.  Each week I would work up the nerve to tell her I’d planned to stop lessons but before I could get around to it, she’d pull out all of my favorite pieces, make me sing them and I would fall in love with singing all over again. By the time I left my lesson I couldn’t imagine a world in which I didn’t get to sing with her and be in her presence for at least 30 minutes a week.

I could spend a lot of time writing about technical things I learned about music and singing during my lessons but, while those things are important and I’m grateful for having learned them, the best learning that I did during that time has nothing to do with actual music or singing.  Ms. Duhon taught me other lessons. Life lessons.  She said to me once, “Dianna, I had been to Europe and back three times before I married. You need to know that it’s important for you to have a life of your own before you share it with someone.”  Growing up in tiny-town Louisiana, I had never heard those words uttered by anyone.  It was a powerful realization that my life could be what I wanted to make it and it didn’t have to look like everyone else’s that surrounded me.  Those words were compelling. They felt like freedom and possibility.

Ms. Duhon didn’t just teach music and life-lessons, she exposed me to life through the arts in numerous ways over the course of our time together.  She took me to my first ballet.  I remember it like it was yesterday. I hated it.  But I remember being in awe of how glamorous she was for the event. She wore a dress and a costume jewelry broach and when we ate dinner beforehand at the buffet she pronounced the word boo-fay. She. Was. Everything.  She took me to my first opera, Samson and Delilah, which I loved.  She also took me to see Handel’s Messiah, which was the first time I remember falling in love with orchestra. These things might seem insignificant to some but these experiences enlarged my worldview exponentially and in ways none of my other life experiences had to that point.

In my case, music lessons didn’t produce a performer or a musician.  The totality of my music career consisted of singing at church and in college choir, and even then I had a strong apprehension to solos.  For me, music and singing is solely personal; something I have for myself and my enjoyment.  Ms. Duhon’s music lessons did help me find my voice and make me a singer but more importantly they instilled a deep, profound love of the arts, which makes my life richer.  They excited curiosity in me and made me seek understanding of the world in a new and more diverse way.  They gave me a much needed outlet to express my feelings and if you know me, you know I have ALL of the feelings.

On a recent trip to NYC to visit my brother, we were taking a train uptown and began reminiscing about Ms. Duhon and her influence.  By the time we reached our stop we were both crying.  We were crying because we felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. We were crying because she was a magnificent human and through relationship and the gift of music, she changed the trajectory of our lives.  That isn’t something you take for granted. That’s something that you hold close and sacred. I’m not a musician but what I know with absolute certainty is that the arts are so subtlely and thoroughly woven into my life that the implications are long-lasting and far-reaching in ways I’ve yet to even understand.  Thank God and Ms. Duhon for that.



Dianna Phelps is a school-based mental health professional with a proven track record of success in providing evidence-based supports and interventions.  Her areas of expertise include School Climate & Culture, Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, Social Emotional Learning, Behavior Intervention & Discipline and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. Dianna currently lives in Atlanta and works for Fulton County Schools where she coaches teachers under the Disproportionality Project, which is aimed at plugging the school-to-prison pipeline by providing behavior intervention, restorative practices and support services to students in need.  Dianna holds a B.S. in Sociology from Southern Nazarene University, a M.A. in Counseling from Louisiana Tech University and has completed post graduate work at Loyola University Chicago in Advanced School-Based Mental Health Practice. 

MAGICAL UNICORNS: Artists & Teachers

by Jerry Phelps

Throughout my career as a classroom and private music teacher, and now as an arts education supervisor, leader, and consultant, I’ve often heard others say that arts education helps raise test scores. I realize that most people who say this do so in honest and genuine support of arts education. They think that if they comment on how arts education improves test scores, somehow influencers and policymakers in public education will understand that we should keep the arts alive in public schools.

While I like this sentiment, I also find it highly problematic. To me, the arts are not to be used as a tool for the other—that is, the arts are worth the study and pursuit because they function as stand-alone academic subjects. I have never once considered what I do as extra. Sure, I could tell you about the countless research studies that have clearly shown that schools with quality, robust arts education programs have higher standardized test scores, graduation rates, engagement in the school and surrounding community, and positive impact on school culture, but that relegates arts education to solely being used as a tool to solve the world’s problems. I like to think of it more as a tool to understand the world’s problems, not necessarily to solve them.

I started CORE Arts Consulting in effort to expand my work into multiple schools, communities, states, and even countries. I deeply believe in the power of arts education and that it should be a right to every child in public schools, regardless of socioeconomic background. Access to quality arts instruction changes lives. I speak from personal experience. I grew up in a small, rural town in Louisiana where little to no arts education was happening. I was fortunate to encounter Ms. Edith (Duhon) Wilkerson who ultimately changed my life through the study of piano and singing. I frequently think of all the children (and adults!) across our great country that never are so lucky. They rely almost exclusively on public schools and churches to receive education and experiences in the arts. But, what happens when those institutions are no longer doing the work?

In the article, Study: Music Education Could Help Close The Achievement Gap Between Poor and Affluent Students, the author, Rebecca Klein, explains the results of a study from Northwestern University in which researchers “looked at the impact of music education on at-risk children’s nervous systems and found that music lessons could help them develop language and reading skills.” The study was conducted over two summers in Los Angeles in a program where low-income students received free music lessons through the Harmony Project. This study reiterates that which many of us already understand: Arts education matters! We are better off having studied and experienced the arts. So, why do we continue to have to explain this to naysayers? Why are school leaders and administrators having to make scheduling decisions based on whether or not arts classes are taking away from the already increased literacy and math blocks? Why do we always attempt to support our work by first saying that it helps growth in other areas? What if it only helped children grow as artists and thinkers and doers? Isn’t that in itself enough?

My favorite line from the article is, “These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.” Listening and learning. Now that’s something we could all stand to get better at! As you begin your school year, I encourage you to stop justifying your work in the arts as merely a means to assist schools in teaching literacy and math. Rather, I ask you to consider that your work is important and worthy for what it is. You teach the arts for the arts' sake. You teach it because it alone is worthy. Cross-curricular connections are inherent in the arts. You don’t really have to spend much time searching for ways to incorporate them. If you teach theatre, teach your students theatre. If you teach visual art, teach them visual art. If you teach dance, by all means, teach your students to dance! Our society is depending on us to do this work. They may not always be grateful for our work in the moment, but they certainly will in the long run. Artists and teachers, YOU ARE MAGICAL UNICORNS. Keep creating magic with your students! I’m wishing you the best year yet.



With more than a decade of classroom teaching experience and a proven track record of arts education program development nationally, Jerry Phelps is a sought-after arts education professional specializing in curriculum, program development, professional development, teacher coaching, and organizational sustainability. In addition to a variety of classroom and private teaching experiences, Phelps most recently served as the Director of Arts Education and eventually the Director of Co-Curricular Programs for Democracy Prep Public Schools. In these positions, he managed and oversaw the development and growth of dozens of school-based arts education programs, national award-winning speech and debate programs, and physical education and athletic programs across the nation. Among his awards and recognition, Phelps was named a quarter finalist by the RECORDING ACADEMY© and THE GRAMMY FOUNDATION© for the inaugural Music Educator Award. As a seasoned singer and performer, Phelps can be seen on stage frequently throughout New York City in a variety of solo shows and one-off performances. Phelps currently serves as the Principal Consultant for the New York City-based arts education consulting firm, CORE Arts Consulting. 


Composition in the Traditional Piano Lesson

by Kimberly Arnold


Teaching composition in the traditional piano lesson setting has been a struggle for many teachers over the years. Oftentimes our schedules during the school year do not allow for “extra” work other than preparation for recitals and contests. However, composition plays an important role for many students in piano lessons. By allowing a student the freedom to create his or her own personal expression of music, we are fostering the student’s ability to be creative and allowing them to expand their knowledge in a different format.

Composition is helpful for many students:

-the dreamer student with ADD

-the student that is struggling emotionally and needs to find an expression of the emotions inside them

-the student that only plays classical music and needs to become more comfortable with ear-training

It has been my experience that students enjoy writing their own music, but they need direction and a catalyst to get them started. Here are some tips that I have found to be helpful in my own studio:

-discuss major and minor keys (do they want their song to sound happy or spooky?)

-write 1-4 measures together and then have them continue on their own either through variation form, repetition, sequencing, or through-composed

-Utilize a series of piano composition books such as Wynn-Anne Rossi’s “Creative Composition Toolbox”

Beginner students will not know how to write in notation form, so it is typically best to give them a piece of notebook paper and turn it sideways. Draw a horizontal line across the length of the paper which will denote Middle C. Then the student can compose based on mapping rather than notation. It would look something like this:

                ----                                       ---------                                                            ----      ----

---       ----        ---                    ----------                                                 --------     -----

C___--_________-----------------_____________------___________________________----_____                                                             ---------                                    ------------

                                                                                    ----------                                               ---------

When they bring their composition to their next lesson, you can help by quickly charting it on staff paper to help them to keep consistency in their practice and performance.

Elementary students can use basic notation form with some reminders from you along the way. They typically need reminders of writing clefs, brackets, key signatures, etc. but usually have success in writing in standard notation form. Elementary students tend to do well with descriptive songs, so guiding them to write about personal experiences such as nature hikes, airplane rides, vacations, or any other adventures that they enjoyed is always a good place to start. Elementary students may find it difficult to write for both hands, so I often allow them to write a melody and if they want any accompaniment, I will help them. We will add whole notes or chords and keep the accompaniment simple.

Intermediate students that have never composed before may find it awkward to begin composing at first, but typically they settle into it and enjoy expressing their ideas on paper. Intermediate students have more success with writing for both hands, and they can even add other instruments from their experience in other music settings.

Once your students have composed a piece, allow them a venue in which they can perform their masterpiece. Having a recital dedicated solely to original compositions can help alleviate any insecurities about performing their piece for others. Everyone will be in the same boat...and what an exciting recital it will be!


 Check it out: Creative Composition Notebook



Kimberly Arnold has taught private piano for over eighteen years and has taught in the music classroom from preschool through college. She currently resides in Oklahoma City where she teaches privately and at Mid-America Christian University. Kimberly holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Piano Performance from Southern Nazarene University and Master of Music in Music History from the University of Oklahoma. She can be reached at KimArnold78@gmail.com