It’s another music exam season at this time of the year in the UK. Final weeks are usually decided to exercise more on the aural in my piano studio. One of my pupils is working on the ABRSM Grade 2 at the moment. While we were working on the D section (describe the features of music) in the aural, she said,

‘How is this test supposed to be anything to do with helping my piano playing?’

A fair question! So, I demonstrated the reason by playing a piece of music in two different ways and asked her a few questions. In my playing, I applied the following details:

The first playing
No dynamics, no phrasing, no articulations and no tempo changes

The second playing
Clear dynamics gradations with swaying tempi and supportive articulations following what musical phrasings naturally suggest

Teacher: ‘So, which one did you enjoy listening?’

Pupil: ‘The second one’

Teacher: ‘Why?’

Pupil: ‘Because there were crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes.

Teacher: ‘Why do you think I did the crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes?’

Pupil: ‘Because it sounds much nicer and more musical.’

Teacher: ‘Now, if you understand the music well enough and you’d like to make it sound nicer and musical, you need to know what it is you can add to make that happen. Identifying musical expression tools, such as crescendo, ritardando, non legato, legato, etc. in the music you listen to helps you to be aware what it is that makes the music sound more musical. So, you can apply it to your own playing.’

My pupil seemed to be satisfied with this answer. Having said that, the aural training such as this really shouldn’t be just a last minute preparation. It has to be in some way or the other incorporated into the regular lessons. It doesn’t have to be completely a separated exercise. You can do within the pieces that you’re working on. Posing questions such as why there’s a crescendo here, why it’s a subio p here, etc. What mood or effect do these signs are meant to emulate in executing musical expression or phrasing, etc. You can even try adding extra expression marks where appropriate to make the sound more original to you, to express how you feel about the particular piece. Guiding the pupils to have their own ideas as to how they want to play particular phrases always help them to be more aware of the importance of expression tools that they can use in playing. If you know what tools to use for particular phrases in the music, you have more freedom to express the music the way you’d like.

If the piece has a title, it’s a good item to discuss and decide how to make it sound like what the title suggests. You may think what it’s got to do with the aural? In my opinion, creating a sound image in your mind is already an act of exercising the aural. Trying to hear what you’d like to hear and trying to transfer that to your playing always deliver a focused practice and it’s very satisfying when you finally hear what you have imagined! The true ‘listening’ ear is not just about hearing what’s there but also hearing what’s going to be. So, as you can imagine, exposing your ear to a good amount of quality music is essential. With anything else, to be aware of what makes the difference is a good start to be able to improve you’ve already got.

Why not try doing the aural test for yourself next time you listen to the music in the background, in which I mean making conscious efforts to be aware of what it is that makes a particular phrase in a particular point in the music stands out to you; not only for dynamics, articulations, tempi, etc. but also for particular styles of writing, particular harmonies, etc. Classical music has more dynamics and tempos changes; hence a lot more to be aware with. But pop and jazz music can also be a useful source. Particularly for articulations and phrasing. Classical musicians can learn quite a lot from them when it comes to articulations particularly!

It’s my usual practice to write something for my piano students from time to time when I see that they need a little help to get their motivation level boosted up from different angles. When that happens, I often use a form of etude (study); short but useful with various skill-building contents. Some of my early etudes for that purpose have been published as an article in the EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association)’s own magazine, Piano Professional (issue 34), April 2014. Boogie Woogie Etudes, I call it, are a set of three studies based on Boogie Woogie style (piano-based blues) to cover a wide range of skill-building exercises from the aural, visual, kinaesthetic & intellectual point of view. Across the 7 pages in this article, I covered every detail about what they’re for, how they’re introduced and how they can be explored in the area of improvisation, etc. I hope these etudes find their usefulness in many piano teachers’ studios. The magazine can be purchased via the EPTA’s web site.

piano professional

I’ve been asked by one of my 8 years old pupils’ mother yesterday; ‘I wonder when my son starts learning to read music. He seems to be frustrated because he can’t read yet. He’s so keen and wants to do more.’ He only started piano lesson 2 months ago and he’s learned a few pieces and etudes, and during the holiday he enjoyed playing a Christmas song with a harmony in the left hand. Off to a good start, without needing to read notes to learn pieces, so he can focus on getting his ear-eye-hand coordination sorted and ready to tackle an intricate task of decoding notation later on.

Coordination doesn’t just mean moving fingers and putting the hands together. It also includes the ability to ‘hear’ what you’re playing or what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play, to ‘understand’ high and low in sound in relation to up and down of the keyboard, to be able to ‘sing or hum’ the melody line while you’re playing to maintain steady pulse, to learn to sing or hum rhythmic patterns while you’re playing so that you’re aware of rhythmic values in music, to ‘transfer’ the information that your eye took in to your finger work, etc. When pupils have gained such coordination first, they usually find their way not to get frustrated when they start learning to read notation. So, to my view, a couple pages to cover how to read notation as you find in most conventional piano tutor books seems not sufficient enough. A lot more careful and considerate preparations leading to reading notation seems necessary and more sensible. With anything else, ‘internalising’ takes time and effort.

To compare how we learn to speak and read your language, it may sound much clearer. Did you start to read a book before you speak your language? Did you start learning to read before you can write a few words? When you read, do you read letter by letter to form a word? And finally, can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

In reading music, the same can be said, I believe. If your mind is trained to recognise patterns in relation to how they sound, guessing work can kick in and you can focus on executing the sound on your instrument. For this reason, I usually introduce to my pupils an interval reading technique, rhythmic reading/writing exercises and a few landmark notes writing exercises in the early stage of learning, while they learn to acquire coordination skill to be able to ‘hear’, ‘sing’ and ‘play’, so when it comes to reading music to learn pieces, they know what to do. They take in rhythmic values properly, they can maintain steady pulse while they play, they can play in an ensemble setting, etc, and they can eventually become independent learners.

Back to this 8 years old pupil of mine, he’s already done quite a bit of preparations to start reading notation very soon. He just doesn’t realise that they’re part the course and that he’s already acquired some reading skill to read music! He’ll soon no doubt find out he can actually read music ;)

It may sound like a lousy excuse but describing, expressing and explaining with words are not my forte, maybe that’s one of the reasons why I prefer music without words in listening, performing and writing as well. Although, I do enjoy good songs by many imaginative musicians when they appear, of course!

One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a very long while… writing a piece of music for my gentle-hearted husband who is always there for me, to support me for my venturous ideas and activities, to make me smile with his good sense of humour and being patient me of a single focused mind, the list can go on…

For his love of baroque music, I started off with having an attempt of writing a modern baroque piece of music. But then my fingers landed on a harmony, which changed the course of direction completely. I just followed where it led me. Songs of various kinds are also my husband’s passion, so eventually I decided to fit my music into a pop song form. In that sense, I can say it’s a piano ‘song’.

As I briefly mentioned in PART II, I’d like to explore more about pattern recognition (visual) in relation to executing them on an instrument (kinaesthetic). Though, another invaluable skill not to be forgotten is to be able to ‘hear’ in your mind what you see (aural). To explain what I mean, I’d like to give you a simple example here before I move onto focusing on visual and kinaesthetic combination exercise, hopefully in my next post!

Here’s a very simple tune that everyone knows. Some may have recognised it instantly just by letting your eye run through these 4 bars quickly. Those who don’t read music, here’s what you can try.

a tune everyone knows

1. Learn to sing the rhythm with steady pulse you can detect from singing these patterns; you’ll find that it usually occurs naturally! (See my past post dated on January 26, 2012 at 4. Understanding rhythm, about the rhythmic syllable you can use to sing)

-Bar 1: short-short-long_______
-Bar 2: short-short-long_______
-Bar 3: short-short-short-short
-Bar 4: twice as long_________

2. Recognise the direction of the notes (See Part II, about how to recognise intervals)

-Is it staying the same?
-Is it going up a step or skip?
-Is it going down a skip or double skip?
-Is it going stepwise, up or down?

3. Now try adding various pitches following the direction of the notes (It may be helpful to use your hand showing going up or down to guide your voice visually).

-When it goes up a skip, raise your voice pitch a bit higher.
-When you see a big drop (a double skip here!), lower your voice pitch down slightly more than a bit.
-When you see a stepwise motion, simply try singing the scale up or down.

4. Try singing that way a couple of times with correct rhythms (An important bit! – correct notes with wrong rhythms would make a well-known tune virtually unrecognisable!) to see if you ‘hear’ a recognizable tune.

5. If you still have no luck by now, change your rhythmic syllable singing to just humming but with correct rhythm. Or even without looking at the music if you managed to memorise the melodic shapes by now (It often helps you focus better on listening when you take visual distraction away!).

Now, can you guess what the tune is? Also, an important thing to remember here is to let your ear have an ‘attentive’ listening while you’re singing; how the pitch moves up and down. ‘Isn’t that obvious?’, you may say. But you’ll be surprised to realise that you hear a few details that you previously didn’t when you bring more attention to your own singing. This obvious skill we have, ‘listening’, tend to get pushed aside even more when it comes to playing an instrument because your mind is so busy with getting your finger work right. It’s the very reason why it’s important to train your ear to know ‘what to listen for’.

For those who just started reading the notations, try not to use your instrument to work out what the tune is. Try to figure it out by singing! Being able to creating an aural map in your mind and to be able to sing it before transferring that to your fingers to execute what’s written on the score is probably the most useful skill to develop if you’re serious about getting better at sight-reading. When you develop this skill, you’ll find that you start mixing with some guessing work to get the music going without any break, which is essentially what the sight-reading is all about; being able to play it through with some sense of musical directions with less mistakes as possible!

One of the most rewarding feelings you get, as a performer is I believe that you sense that you delivered something memorable for the audience to take home with. It’s even more so when you have a performing partner to deliver it together as a team. For the audience, perhaps it can be liken to the feeling of fulfilment when you had such a delicious dinner at a beautiful restaurant; an art form to enjoy with your eye, sense it with your taste bud, and absorb with your body and share the experience with others.

Due to my very limited numbers of concerts I participate in a year, there aren’t many that I get to experience this feeling. It’s not easy to spare enough time for learning new repertoires when you jaggling with teaching and composing and other works that occur from day to day basis. But sometimes, less time increases your focus level, and something unexpected comes out of it. One of such instances was the lunchtime chamber concert with the dynamic violinist, Mifune Tsuji, on 14th November 2013. Due to the lack of time, certainly I didn’t feel ready to perform this particular violin sonata: Sonate pour piano et violon en Sol Majeur (1892) by Guillaume Lekeu. The only thing that helps me through it was the fact that I felt in love with this piece of music at the first hearing. The fact that Mifune-san felt the same way about this piece and performed many times also helped me greatly. Her beautiful playing simply guided me to understand this piece of music and performing it together was such a joyful experience for me. When we were performing, I poured my whole self into it, in hope that we give something to the audience to take home to. Although there were still a few technical challenges that need to be sorted out over time on my part, I felt more controlled and calm than usual. I wish that happens more often!

My first and the most reliable critique is my husband. Although he’s not a musician, he’s got a certain instinct about the overall musical understanding. What I appreciate most is that he’s very honest in telling me how he felt from the performance. For me, it’s very refreshing to receive opinions from non-musician listeners, which more often than not quite spot on and I value them greatly. When Mifune-san and I finished performing, I was very anxious to find out how he felt for the whole concert. He gave me a big thumb up! I felt convinced that it looks generally positive! I’m glad that I managed to record the whole performance from this concert, so that I can sit back and listen to what our audience experienced from this concert. The positioning of the video recorder wasn’t ideal but I’d often like to capture how the audience is taking the music in and also I think it’s a refreshing idea to invite the audience to experience the performance from the performers’ point of view. I hope you understand what I mean by watching this video and that we share our love for this piece of music with you too!

The live recording of the whole concert is available to download free from my bandcamp page, if you’d rather just have a listen! Please click the link here.

I’m only beginning to understand how difficult it is to capture the full range of tones from my own grand piano in my small piano room. Of course, it’s probably sensible to go to a recording studio to have myself recorded but I always have this strong crave for Do-It-Yourself and experiment! Recording my own piano in my own piano room is certainly one of them. I started out with using Zoom H4n. As I gradually understand what’s lacking in the Zoom H4n-captured audios, I’ve decided to invest in a few improvements within the budget. Let’s face it; it’s a small and carpeted boxy room with a Yamaha grand C5A, so it’s never going to be a proper recording studio quality. All I’m trying to do is to properly understand the relationship between my room and piano, so that I can apply much needed improvements to get the best out of what I can do with my limited resources.

The best thing I did before I started making any changes was to join one of the reputable sound engineer’s forums, gearslutz.com. To be honest, I’ve never thought I’d do such thing, joining a forum to ask for advice. For someone who has no grip with sound engineering like myself, it took me a bit of courage to join this forum and ask for help; what if my questions are perceived as so ridiculous… But there’re members who are genuinely interested in helping others. I got some very useful tips from the very experienced sound engineers across the world to get started with my improvement project. What I found out first was that my room need some sort of acoustic treatment. I’ve already got some acoustic foam and made a few panels to hand on the wall.

In applying improvements gradually to my piano room to capture my Yahama grand piano tone better, I thought I’d keep a record of progress by making test recordings each time and compare between what was before and what’s now. The first improvement I made was to move from using Zoom H4n to Tascam DR680 for a better mic preamp and more mic inputs. In my first test recordings:

1. No room treatment is yet applied for this recording, except the two 30cm x 30cm acoustic foams behind the two mics (about 65cm away from the mics).

2. A pair of AKG Percetpion 420s are positioned in a sort of modified version of ORTF setting or maybe NOS? – about 30cm spaced between the mics with about 60 degree angle apart, using cardioid pattern, 60cm (for treble side) & 73cm (for bass side) away from the piano rim, the mics height is 140cm.

mics positioning2-SMALL

3. Two different styles of music were recorded; one non-classical music with quiet dynamics using limited range of keyboard with lots of sustaining pedal for overlapping harmony effect, and the other classical music with much louder dynamics covering the wide range of the keyboard.

4. The recorded audios here are raw wav file (recorded at 24bits, 48kHz but converted to 16bit, 44.1kHz), with no EQ or reverb is added.

This is what my current room sounds like, or my piano sounds like in my piano/teaching room.

Kathryn Tickell’s The Return – Tascam DR680:

Kathryn Tickell’s The Return – Zoom H4n:

Chopin op10-1 – Tascam DR680:

Chopin op10-1 – Zoom H4n:

Even to my non-sound-engineer ear, the difference is very evident. Some high frequencies in particular.

Hopefully, my next test recordings will be done in an acoustically treated room, well… to some extent.

Warning: My apologies, my piano is slightly out of tune at the moment. There’re some harsh metallic sounding notes in the treble area as you can hear.

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