PPP061: The Importance of a Good Practice Environment with Piano Teacher, Dawn Ivers

Home / Podcast / PPP061: The Importance of a Good Practice Environment with Piano Teacher, Dawn Ivers

Dawn Ivers is a teacher based in Pasadena, California. Dawn has been traveling to teach in her student’s homes for the past 11 years. In my conversation with Dawn, I was struck by what an encourager she is, not only with her students but also with the piano parents in her studio.

Tell us your personal piano story as well as how you chose piano teaching as a career.

Musical family on my mom’s side. Everyone plays an instrument, my grandmother was the piano player, my mom has a degree in voice and plays guitar, uncle plays guitar and mandolin, grandpa plays the violin, everybody sings. We all lived kind of far apart but at holidays we all would bring our instruments and sing and play together so I have very fond memories of that, and I sort of inherited a musical background.

We have home videos of me playing the piano as soon as I was tall enough to stand on my tip-toes and reach the keys, so I was definitely interested in the sounds it made early on. I started piano lessons around 5-6 when one of my friends began lessons and I immediately asked my parents if I could too.

My first piano teacher was my mom’s best friend. She is wonderful, has a great sense of humor, made lessons fun, but also managed to make her teaching and expectations clear. She was also affordable, which was a big one for my family at the time.  And I am forever grateful for the investment my parents made in my music education. So I try to carry on that piano teacher legacy, of providing a good music education that is enjoyable and communicating the value of what we learn while being as accessible cost-wise as I can afford to make it.

I started teaching house call lessons for a couple friends’ and acquaintances’ kids after I graduated from high school. In the course of going through college, word of mouth spread and my studio began to grow. By the time I graduated UCLA I had enough on my waitlist for a full schedule and I had realized that I loved doing it, so I decided to leave my other job at the time and do

By the time I graduated UCLA I had enough on my waitlist for a full schedule and I had realized that I loved doing it, so I decided to leave my other job at the time and do piano full time.

Since then, I’ve added three wonderful associate teachers, Aki, Mallory, and Michael to help meet the demands of our waitlist. Dawn and the teachers in her studio can be reached for lessons at www.DawnsPiano.com

Were you a good student?

Yes and no. I was an eager student and was generally really good about making sure my practice log was completed each week during elementary school. But high school got very busy, I was on 4 different varsity teams and in band my junior and senior years, so I had too many extracurriculars to practice as much as I really needed to. I also have never been incredibly patient with myself, so if a song presented too much frustration, I might shut down on it for a while. But all that aside, I did genuinely love what I was learning. Music is in my blood and it mattered to me to do it.

What is one thing you often say to your piano students?

“Slow down.” I feel like I say that 50 times a day. For some reason at a young age, we trick ourselves into believing that faster sounds better and that just trucking through a piece instead of playing carefully is somehow easier. But that’s simply not true. If you learn a piece too fast, you forget it fast, so the work is all for nothing.

Not to mention, rhythm gets muddled, note accuracy takes a big hit, and there’s usually little to no dynamic range. So I always try to emphasize that it’s important to learn a piece slowly, to be methodical, and to teach yourself to anticipate what is coming next. We’ve got to take time to see the whole picture, and the brush strokes to make along the way. Otherwise, it’s like you end up charging headfirst into a wall.

So “slow down,” know that your practice tempo and performance tempo are quite different.

Another thing I say all the time is “don’t smoosh the Penguins!” Or “Dude, you’re smooshing the Penguins!” as a reminder to keep the hand in the shape of an igloo, and definitely off of the wood while playing.

Is there a common struggle your piano parents deal with? How do you help them through it?

Practice is sort of a constant struggle in this industry, I’ve had a practice resource table at recitals with flyers and practice motivation ideas. This year we are trying the 100 day challenge and that seems to have a lot of our students pretty excited.

Practice being difficult is kind of a given, so I think the other thing that I find myself helping parents with is understanding the importance of a having a good, in tune instrument, and how crucial that is in supporting their child’s music education.

I teach in my students’ homes, and one of the advantages is that I can see the practice space and the instrument, so I know right away if those are causing problems. Getting those problems solved can be tricky, mostly because the fixes can be costly. But setting up a good practice space, with a suitable instrument, really does create an environment for a student to succeed in learning and performing, and it shows your kid that their music matters in your home.

What keeps you motivated as a teacher?

New music, accessing resources from within the online piano teacher community, and those beautiful, poignant moments at a recital or performance when a student you’ve had for years takes the stage and is suddenly a young adult instead of a child and they’re performing something wonderful and expressive and you might cry just a little because you know they made it. They’re a musician now. You may have helped them learn the notes and the steps along the way but that moment, that’s all theirs and it’s absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.

Also, I like to eat and have a place to live, so that keeps me working too. I’ve got a large cat that would probably try to eat me if we ran out of food for him. There’s a shirt I wear when I’m exercising that says I work hard so my cat can have a good life. It’s kinda true.

Dawn’s cat, Philo, is one thing that keeps her motivated as a teacher.


Do you have a favorite piece that you enjoy teaching your students?

It changes. Right now I have several students learning “Married Life” theme from Pixar’s Up that is a lovely little light waltz we are really enjoying. I also have several students who get very excited whenever I bring in a new book by Andrea Dow (at Teach Piano Today), and I love how her music has inspired and motivated my students.

Listen to Piano Parent Podcast Episode 053 to learn more about selecting supplemental music for your piano kid.

I also really enjoy teaching improvisation and composing. Seeing that creativity come to life, and sometimes you have a kid who doesn’t really respond to the sight reading, learning other peoples’ music approach, but you sit them down with some guidelines about a scale or mode, play an accompaniment while they improvise a melody, and you just see them come out of their shell.

Listen to Piano Parent Podcast Episode 056 to learn the history of a well-known American folk song.

We run a composing add-on every summer and are actually just finishing up our 4th annual Young Composers program this month with recording sessions for our album.

Tell us about an app or technology that you find useful in your teaching.

Dropbox – I have Dropbox on my iPad. I’m a traveling teacher, so having the majority of my studio library at my fingertips is huge. I tend to buy studio licensed digital books whenever possible (so thank you whichever piano teaching genius made that a thing!), and I tend to plan ahead to have physical copies available, but sometimes if we’re spontaneous I can print copies at a student’s house. With my students who are in the Piano Pronto method books, I can have all the teacher duet books handy. Dropbox has made my teaching bag a lot lighter while making me more efficient.

Noteflight online composing software – Noteflight is an excellent music notation tool. I love how intuitive the iPad editor is. You don’t have to download an app and basic membership is free. This is the program we use for the Young Composers program. Afterwards, our students can create their own accounts and continue to compose on their own once they know how to use the program.

Instagram – We do a lot of Instagram “brag photos.” for a traveling teacher, social media is a great way to create a sense of studio community.

This the show that Dawn has shared with her piano students – Piano Parent Podcast Episode 030: 10 Steps to Sitting Properly at the Piano.

If you could visit with any composer or musician who would you choose and why?

Well, I’m a bit of a nerd and my students know this about me, so it would be Joe Hisaishi. He is the film composer for the majority of the Studio Ghibli films. I love those movies, and I love playing his music. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s also great for intermediate teen students. I don’t know what I would say to him or anything, but playing through his pieces has been quite therapeutic for me at times.

Joe Hisaishi’s music is available to purchase on Amazon.

Listen to Dawn’s favorite piece, “The Path of Wind” performed by Joe Hisaishi.

What parting words of wisdom or quote do you have for parents of new piano students?

Invest in a good instrument and start the practice routine right away. From day one you’re showing your kid how important this is and helping them frame the role that music is going to play in their lives. And then celebrate every milestone and every single success along the way.

What is the best way for potential students to get in touch with you?

The website is www.dawnspiano.com, I’ve got a contact page there. I’m also on Facebook @dawnspianostudio and Instagram & Twitter @dawnspiano.

Hey there and welcome!

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