Custom sheet music for students

(Updated for 2014)   Hi, teachers! When using Fundamental Keys with your students, there usually comes a time sooner or later when they want to play something of their own choosing. I think I have a great way of handling this, and I want to share it with you in the hopes that it gives you some ideas.

After many years of teaching, I decided that while I would use my method which is strictly classical with all my students, I would also give them free rein to always be working on one thing that they picked out themselves. When I was a kid, I played lots of non-classical stuff for fun, and I never took those things to my teacher. However, I was lucky enough to live in a very musical household with shelves full of popular sheet music and a mom who would give me some help with that kind of thing if I needed it. I realize that most students aren’t in that situation and need a little help from their teacher to discover what variety there is in piano music.

In my studio, my students are allowed to ask for absolutely any song they can think of (once they can read notes on the grand staff). I tell them it can be anything they’ve heard on a cd at home or on the radio or in a movie. Pop, rock, soul, movie themes, broadway, etc. Because of this policy, you can imagine that I’ve gotten quite a range of requests. My students have played such diverse things as: the Indiana Jones theme, various things from Star Wars, several songs from Disney movies, the theme from the old TV show Bewitched, the Pink Panther (of course), a Jonas Brothers song (yikes), a Norah Jones song (not bad), several Beatles songs, the old jazz standard Stormy Weather, and on and on and on. It’s a great way for them to feel like they are having input in their music education without it derailing the basic curriculum.

You may well wonder how on earth I can give the students this much freedom. Truth be told, I do put a significant amount of time into this endeavor. I think it’s well worth it, though. It keeps the kids (and some adults) highly entertained and makes it more likely that the ones who don’t love playing classical music will stick with piano lessons because they see how their classical studies are also helping them learn how to play other things off of sheet music too. It also gives me a chance to play with notation software and simplifying music. I get a kick out of that, and I bet that with a little practice at it, you would enjoy it too. Of course, sometimes you get lucky and can find sheet music already done at just the right level.

Here are the basic steps to providing sheet music for a student’s special request:

1) If you’ve never heard the song before, you should first listen to it a few times. Do a search for it on YouTube. I’ve never gotten a request that I couldn’t find there. If you can’t find it on YouTube, though, just try a Google search. Hopefully that will lead you to a source for listening to the song without having to purchase.

2) Check out for downloadable sheet music. MusicNotes is an incredible resource. They seem to have downloadable sheet music for absolutely everything – usually in multiple versions. Songs range in price from about $3 to $6 each. Try to find a version that’s at least close to the right level for your student, and purchase it. MusicNotes will let you print it immediately, and also save it in a format that can be opened with their free software.

MusicNotes is basically guaranteed to have any song your students might possibly come up with as a request. In the extremely unlikely event that you don’t find it there, but it is in print, you might have to order a hard copy from Sheet Music Plus or some other music retailer. If both of those options fail, you will just have to figure out the song by ear or steer your student to a different song.

3) If the sheet music you have found is not simple enough for the particular student making the request, or there is anything at all you want to change about it, at this point, you would use what you have bought as a basis for creating your own version in notation software installed on your computer. I do this all the time. I try the music at the piano, think about the ways it would need to be different for my student, and then set to work at my computer creating a custom version.

Notation software is extremely fun to use. These days, it is simple to create beautiful, professional-looking sheet music from any home computer. If you can do basic word processing and are a musician, you can use notation software. The two most common programs are Finale and Sibelius. Years ago, I had a side-business doing music notation for composers and singers. At that time, I went ahead and purchased the Sibelius notation software. I had tried both Sibelius and Finale, and I firmly believe that Sibelius is more intuitive and fun to use. The full version of Sibelius is major overkill, however, for the task of creating simple sheet music for the piano and absolutely not worth the purchase price if that is all you will be doing with it.

I recommend Finale NotePad as your best option for making custom sheet music for students. You can download it for absolutely free! It is a stripped-down version of Finale that has more than enough features for what you will be doing with it. There is also a stripped-down version of Sibelius, but that costs $129, and is still overkill for the needs of a piano teacher.

I hope this article has been useful and interesting to you, and that all you teachers get a hold of Finale NotePad and get to work making some fun sheet music for your students. They will love it!

in Tips and Tricks

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