In recent years, I’ve welcomed a few teenage students who have never played the piano before or who had a few years of lessons but had given up when they started playing with both hands.  Teenagers making their own decision to start piano lessons while leading a busy school life working towards GCSEs, deserves a pat on their back.  They’re often looking for something to enjoy, enriching their life outside the school. Consequently, I feel all the more responsible to make sure that they achieve what they’re hoping to get out of piano lessons.  Learning to read musical notation is not necessarily their first priority, although they may have had some experience of reading musical notation during the music classes they received in the past.  And indeed, a little reading skill is useful.  As you can guess, their choice of music usually revolves around the pop songs they listen to.  It’s certainly a challenge for piano teachers who are not into pop music or who, like myself, went through the phase of listening to pop songs a long time ago, like myself.  Finding out what’s current and popular amongst teenagers is not difficult because students will usually short-list them for you.  The true challenge lies in how teachers can make learning pop songs as musically educational as possible as one does with more classically orientated repertoires.  What I usually do first is to ask my students to write down a list of songs that they enjoy listening to so that I can listen to them via he internet.  I then decide whether any are suitable for piano, either in a piano solo style or self-accompanying style.  Here are some criteria that I consider when choosing pop songs for piano lessons:

Ideal songs for piano solo arrangement contain (a little reading skill may be useful):

  • Melodic interest (enough shapes in the melodic line; not too many repeated notes – what sounds good as a vocal doesn’t necessarily mean that it works for a piano solo arrangement)
  • Rhythmic interest (syncopated rhythm either in the melody line or in the bass but not both)
  • Harmonic interest (at least 4 chords)
  • Tonal interest (ideally a simple modulation)

Ideal songs for self-accompanying style arrangement contain:

  • Simple chordal patterns repeated in the background (blocked and/or broken forms without syncopated rhythms), usually best played by the right hand
  • Simple bass patterns, which carry potential for exploring syncopated rhythms to mimic the drum beats, usually best played by the left hand
  • Words in the lyric that have ample syncopated rhythm

Those who aren’t keen on reading musical notation are often willing to learn about patterns based on chord structure. For that reason, it’s usually easier for the first timer to learn songs in a self-accompanying style. Giving a single letter as a root note of a chord and other chord notes by intervals is often enough; the concept of inversions can be explained at a suitable point.

Chords can be written out in letters or keyboard patterns drawn showing which keys to press for certain chords or explained in chord symbols as a shorthand reminder (the bass note in the left hand is almost always the root note of the chord in pop songs).  Anything that helps the students internalise the shape of each chord! Some chords may need simplification depending on the student’s capabilities.  For example, 2-note chord instead of 3; 1st inversion instead of 2nd, blocked form instead of broken or vice versa, as long as they sound harmonically balanced.

Another issue may be choice of key; C major is not necessarily the easiest. To visually recognise chord patterns, it often seems easier for students to have a black key or two in the chord.  Also, when the 2nd or 3rd finger can stay on the black key, chord-playing seems a little easier due to the natural shape of the hand (as Chopin would advocate).  This means that transposition may also be necessary depending on the choice of pop song.  It may seem more work on the teacher’s part, but as students need a regular dose of challenges to keep motivation going, so do teachers!

By the time they have learned to play an entire song, they will have a very good grasp of chord playing in the right hand because of the repetitive nature of pop songs.  They get to practise the same chord patterns over and over especially if they sing all the verses and choruses.  Playing a long song also helps them learn about the structure of music, even if simple as verse / pre-chorus / chorus / bridge / chorus.  As pieces with chords in the right hand start appearing at the grade 3 level in piano exams, learning to play chord-based pop songs can be usefully integrated into the lessons for those who are preparing for an exam to explore more possibilities.  You never know, it may lead to more creative activities as they explore.

The fun part of learning self-accompanying style is that students get to sing along to their own playing.  Having said that, some students, especially boys are often reluctant to sing during the lessons.  I gently encourage them by asking if they’d try at least to speak the words so that they learn how the words fit to the piano part.  If they still refuse, that’s OK too.  The teacher can sing for them and let them listen carefully to how the words fit whilst they try keeping a steady pulse in their playing.  Students have a tendency of missing out a beat or adding an extra beat when the words fit between beats.

Here, I’d like to make a list of elements in pop songs that can be considered educationally beneficial:

  • repetitive nature (useful for developing various muscles, small and large)
  • simple structure (good for form analysis, pattern analysis; it may lead to creative activities)
  • self-accompanying a song opens their ears to listen to themselves naturally and also lays a good foundation for ensemble playing
  • syncopated nature of pop songs in a solo style can further develop coordination between the hands in particular (some students prefer playing the melody than singing it)
  • looking at the hands while playing helps the students observe how their arms/hands/fingers are manipulated, hence they’ll be more aware of how to control various movements of parts of the body, such as the arm, wrist rotation (circular, axial, lateral, etc.), hand/finger shapes, etc.

So far, I have mostly focused on teaching pop songs by rote.  Those who can read music (say grade 1 standard or better) can usually get around skimming through the notations in the music to be able to use them as a visual guide.  This skill is somewhat necessary when the player wishes to play a solo arrangement of a pop song, especially when they put both hands together.  It is often true that seeing how the each part comes together between the hands in a notated form makes it easier to ‘get it’.

My top choices amongst those that my students happily and successfully learned so far are as follows:

For those whose reading skill is not there yet:

  • Imagine by John Lennon (self-acc) – C major (mainly primary chords with a few borrowed/ altered chords which give a lift to the song)
  • Someone Like You by Adele (self-acc) – A major (ideal for wrist rotation; middle fingers can stay mostly on the black keys as the chord shape changes
  • The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood [Gabrielle Aplin cover]) (self-acc) – B minor (4 chords throughout but the order of them changes in some parts of the song; broken chords shared between the hands)
  • Mad World by Tears for Tears [Gary Jules cover] (piano solo) – E minor (4 chords throughout; melodies explored in simple scale and chord patterns)
  • Only Love Can Hurt Like This by Paloma Faith (self-acc) – C major (3 chords throughout; ample syncopated rhythms in the lyrics supported by simple blocked chord on every beat)
  • Like I’m Gonna Loose You by Meghan Trainor (self-acc) – C major (4-chord strcutre with triplet feel throughout; ideal for developing ear, hand and voice coordination) –> available from

For those with some reading skill:

  • Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri (self-acc) – E flat major (starts in C minor, then modulates to E flat major; contrapuntal passage in the Bridge section)
  • Your Song by Elton John (Ellie Goulding cover) (self-acc) – B flat major (the right hand chords may be simplified sensibly; ample syncopated rhythm in the lyrics)
  • Century by Fall Out Boys – E minor (some intricate drum beats in the left hand can be explored with a simple right hand melody (piano solo)
  • Sail by AWOLNATION – pentatonic melody! (piano solo) – G flat major (pentatonic-based melody, which means most notes are the black keys)
  • Let It Go by Anderson-Lopez & R. Lopez (self-acc) – G major (simpler than the original A flat major, especially when it modulates to the subdominant key in the middle section and it’s still singable, not too high or too low) –> available from

To help those who are not reading notation just yet or are reluctant to read, a teacher can introduce a few notes that appear frequently in the music as guide notes, and find the notes around them.  A good old mnemonic device could be used here.  I’m sure many teachers have their own versions.  Here’re some of mine that prove to be successful with my beginner students:

Middle C (middle of the great stave is where Middle C is)

ACE chord (on the while keys, skip a note to the left from the Middle C is A & skip a note to the right, E)

G [=treble] clef G (the eye of the swirl of the treble clef is where the G above Middle C is)

F [= bass] clef F (between the two dots of the bass clef is where the F below Middle C is)

Birth Day (mnemonics for the notes located on the middle line of the stave; B [= b’] in the upper stave & D [= d] in the bottom stave)

Ground (the lowest line note in the standard piano score = G)

Fly away (the highest line note in standard piano score = f’’)

It may seem obvious but guide notes should always be introduced in association with their positions on the keyboard.  Reading other notes can be encouraged by learning to recognise intervals (step = 2nd, skip = 3rd) and the direction of the notes (up = to the right on the keyboard or down = to the left).  This method can help the learners concentrate on reading intervals rather than individual notes.

Young adults are capable of picking up useful information and internalising it in their own way.  A few pointers are usually enough for them to get going as long as the music really interests them.  When students develop some playing skill and memorise a few guide notes, simple tunes, both well known and unfamiliar, can be gradually introduced.

Pop songs, particularly in a self-accompanying style, can also be successfully used with those who have been playing the piano for a few years.  Young players around 11-13 years of age seem to show the change of interest in music as they go through emotional changes, especially girls.  Pop songs seem to be able to reach young people in a way that the classical music repertoire can’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be encouraged to play classical music.  They can always apply a few new skills that they have acquired from playing/singing pop songs, during which they had no pressure mastering tricky passages to be able to play for concerts, competitions, exams, etc.  Nothing in musical endeavours, however trivial it seems, goes to waste, as long as teachers can find the educational contents in it to elaborate.

Recently, one of my 10 years old students played for me an accompaniment of a certain pop song that all year 9 classes sang together at the school assembly.  He picked up a few chords, so I made a simpler arrangement to teach about the chord patterns, and so that he can easily memorise the whole song.  Here’s what comes out:pop-song_self-acc

This pop song seemed very popular amongst young children for a while.  I’d be curious see if teachers can play this accompaniment to their students and have them guess which pop song it is.  I have managed to teach this simple chord progression to my youngest students (5 years olds) successfully.  It’s turning out to be a very effective tool to teach how to play the notes lightly and bouncily, i.e. how to release the tension after playing each note or chord.  It’s also a good counting exercise; up tempo with lots of words to sing along!  For young children, it’d be best if the teacher sings the lyrics so that the student can focus on the timing of when to change a chord to another.

Pop songs won’t teach students about the agogique required for playing Chopin but it helps them cultivate a steady inner pulse; listening ear; coordination between the hands; healthy use of upper body, arms and wrists; basic finger and tonal control; articulation technique; understanding of keyboard orientation; basic understanding of harmonic and musical structure, etc., and most importantly, it gives them a personal enjoyment that is theirs and no one else’s.

For those who are looking for pop song arrangements of intermediate level, here are some of mine recently published from

Happy playing!


In the summer of 2013, my husband and I went to the finale concert of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, held at the Long Barn on the ground of Childerley Hall. The performer was Kathryn Tickell and her new band “The Side” and it was their first ever concert. So, it was quite special. Although I didn’t know Kathryn Tickell, my husband, being a Geordie, did and told me about her and introduced me to her music. The whole experience at the concert was a very energetic, uplifting and moving one. Two tunes from the concert particularly stayed strongly in my mind, Yeavering and The Return. I remember I was captivated by hearing what inspired Kathryn to write these pieces. As we walked through the Childerley Hall ground to head home, I was humming this tune, and asked my husband ‘what’s the name of this song again that I’m humming now?’ – I’m very terrible with names; on first hearing, it usually doesn’t go in to my memory system, also true for the numbers… And he said, ‘The Return‘. I remember saying that this tune is so hauntingly beautiful, I’d like to arrange it for piano solo at some point. Well, it was three years ago and I finally managed to do something about it. It took me somewhat longer than I expected to complete it. Because as I explore where this tune took me, I find myself more and more going around in a circle… I had to stop for a while, then came back to it with a fresh approach.

According to Kathryn’s story, this tune was written “in anticipation of an eventual return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North England (for an exhibition).”

So, my main focus was to find a way of achieving a sense of long journey that the Lindisfarne Gospel took before it finally returned to where it was originated. And also to make a use of what piano can offer. By that, the obvious choices were to use wider ranges of pitches, various styles of accompanying bass part and to apply modulations to close and/or distant keys. After a meticulous editing over a long period, out came my piano solo version of The Return that I’m finally happy with. I’m now pleased to announce that my piano solo arrangement of The Return is ready to share in public after having managed to secure a permission from the Kathryn’s music publisher to arrange and publish it.

I write lots of piano solo arrangements, often by my students’ request, but sometimes I came across such music that prompts me to do so for my own pleasure and share with the public. Kathryn’s The Return was one of such. For this reason, I wanted to make it special, knowing that my husband being from the North, and it means something for me and him too. I’ve decide to create a music video. One visual artist came into my mind whom I worked with before once. I knew in my mind she’d understand what I was hoping to achieve. I’m very grateful for her visions and senses and I’m quite happy with the visuals that she created for this purpose. I hope you enjoy as much as we did in making it.  Finally, thank you Kathryn for giving us such beautiful music to share.

The audio & sheet music or audio only are available from my bandcamp page.

Everyone remembers the craze that went around (still going around, I suppose…) this particular song.  It was two years ago now. I thought I wouldn’t be surprised if my students would request this pop song at some point and they did.  But this girl wanted to sing whilst accompanying herself on piano.  She was 11 years old at the time and was about early intermediate level.  After a numerous testing, out came a version that she happily performed in the concert, dressed up just like Elsa.

After a while, I looked for way to share this in public legally.  I’d hoped be able to include it in my ongoing piano song book projects for youngsters, so I went through a legal way of requesting for a permission to arrange and publish.  It was turned down, of course.  But then I discovered SMP Press’ ArrangeMe scheme this year (for more details, please read my blog post explaining about it).  So now I’m happy to announce that it’s legally available to the public.  I hope there will be more youngsters singing and accompanying themselves this uplifting song!

Sheet music is available from SheetMusicPlus.

Happy self-accompanying!

In addition to writing many teaching materials for my pupils, I often write many piano solo arrangements of known songs by their request.  But I sometimes come across music myself that I deeply fall in love with and haunt me around long enough to urge me to write an arrangement for it, so that I can play it on my piano.  One of which is Joni Michell’s A Case of you.

There are many musicians who cover this deeply moving song and I’m not surprised… I am one of them. I have three favourite versions of this song; Joni’s original, her 2000 jazz version with this mesmerizing arrangement by Vince Mendoza and Prince’s cover version. I was deeply moved by all three. I spent every minute of writing (and laborious editing!) this arrangement with an outpouring of affection towards this song. I hope you too enjoy playing this arrangement as much as I enjoyed arranging it. As always, thank you Joni for giving us many, many beautiful songs.

Here’s the demo recording of this arrangement. I’d like to record it again to create an video to put on YouTube some time in the future, just I did with Both Sides Now (, but hopefully a better one. Until then…

The sheet music for this arrangement is available from the Joni Mitchell’s official web site for free download.

I assume many music teachers have their own favourite mnemonic device or landmark notes system to help the students to memorise the notes’ positions on the stave (staff). For piano players, it’s important to be able to read the notes up and down across the great stave (staff) seamlessly. Some years ago, I came up with my own landmark notes idea to introduce a couple of chosen line notes across the great stave (staff), so the learners can use these notes to find other notes around it on the piano by reading intervallically without necessarily knowing the letter name for all the notes on the staves. That means they can focus on learning to play melodic or harmonic patterns rather reading and seeing each individual note.

Here’re the landmark notes I’ve chosen and added the mnemonics to them:


The order of introducing these notes that I often go for is:

  1. Middle C, G clef G and F clef F
  2. BirthDay notes (middle line note in the treble=B and middle line note in the bass=D)
  3. Ground G (as in the ground floor) and Fly away F (to emphasise the highest line in the great stave; you can fly away from the top line!)

Additional landmark note: Dangling D in the treble stave (this characteristic feature seems to stick in children’s mind well, so it’s a popular one to use)

Once the learners have gone through enough drills (or any helpful games!) to exercise reading these individual notes, they can exercise writing melodic patterns on a manuscript paper. For example, choose one landmark note, such as G clef G, then go step up twice (from line note to space note and then to line note again), throw in a couple of skips here and there (from line note to line note or from space note to space note), etc.

Having said that, depending the age, some learners need repetitive writing practice just going up stepwise and skipwise so that they can see clearly what stepwise/skipwise motion is on the stave.  Young aged children tend to take time in this.

When the learners get comfortable with various melodic shapes, here’re some extended ideas I often use; Word search.

  • BAG and FED are the first ones to introduce because they cover every single note on the piano except C (C on the piano seems to be everyone’s favourite, so is easy to spot!).  And also because it’s a stepwise motion, finding them on the piano is also simple and can be used as a reminder for the key names on the piano (I’m not in favour of using ABCDEFG to memorise the key names. You can guess why!)

The first position for BAG I’d use is starting on BirthDay B and then going descending stepwise.

For the first position for FED, I’d go for either starting on F clef F or ending on Dangling D. The decision is usually made depending on which landmark note is more in the learner’s memory and how well s/he understands how the melodic patterns work.

  • Then, usually progress to some other words, like EGG, DAD, BED, FACE, BAD, ACE (ACE is a useful one to introduce as a landmark chord because it covers skipwise intervals from the Middle C), etc.

Exercise form can be either reading the notes then playing them on the piano or playing first, then write the notes down or placing the notes on a notation board if teachers have one (very useful tool to have – I have a magnetic one of my own design).  For some words, finding the notes on the piano can be a little tricky, so I often leave that part of exercise out.  But generally children enjoy ‘spelling out’ the written notes to find the word.  They seem to  find it a good enough impetus not to dislike this game although it sometimes takes them time to find the word!

Although these type of exercises are useful and should be important part of the lessons, they’re more meaningful when they’re linked to what students are learning or going to learn. I often have them find a chosen landmark note(s) or a word (such as EGG, etc.) hidden in the music that they’re learning or are going to learn rather than starting from the first note in the music. Some of my students are very good at finding FED in the music because in their mind, it has got a characteristic shape. This sort of pattern search game always leads to finding repetitive patterns in the music; a very useful exercise to learn about a musical form eventually.

What I have shared in this post is just one part of various ideas that pop up as we work through reading exercises in the lessons. I hope you take something from the ideas here and expand them and turn them into your own.

Stay creative!




It’s a regular occurrence that my students ask for pop songs in piano lessons.  Some of them are beginners but keen learners.  Some are at the intermediate level.  Over the years, I’ve written many pop song arrangements aimed at various difficulty levels.  Some of them came out better than others.  For quite a while, I’ve been searching for a legal way of sharing them publicly.  In the past, my piano solo arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now has luckily been published from her official website as a free download.  Recently, I came across ArrangeMe with SMP Press (part of, who has a contract with Hal Leonard, allowing composers/arrangers to submit legally their arrangements of copyrighted songs.  SMP Press offers a list of songs that are permitted to arrange and publish from ArrangeMe and the minimum price of each work is set by the copyright holders.  Currently, ArrangeMe arrangers are permitted 30 seconds of music to help showcase their arrangements without seeking for a mechanical licence.  Here are the current price minimums for ArrangeMe titles:

$4.99: Piano (including piano/voice/guitar, piano solo, easy piano, piano duet)
$2.99: Guitar (including guitar tab, solo guitar, easy guitar)
$4.99: Instrumental solo or duet
$12.99: Small instrumental ensemble
$40.00: Large ensemble set of score and parts (excludes concert band)
$4.99: Score only, large ensemble (excludes concert band)
$2.99: Extra part only, large ensemble (excludes concert band)

Here’re two of my piano solo arrangements published from SMP Press:

Read All About It, Part III by Emeli Sandé

A Thousand Years by Christina Perri

I think it’s a great scheme for composers/arrangers to be able to share their arrangements of copyrighted songs without infringing the copyright law.  For more information, visit ArrangeMe FAQ page.

Happy arranging!


In prior to the piano duet concert I’ll be performing with Marie-Noëlle Kendall, the local TV came to film us.  To be honest, I was horrified by the idea that I had to speak to the TV.   But at the hands of this man, Frankie Lowe, made this experience tolerable for me and managed to make me feel like I was speaking to a friend.  I’m ever so grateful for his efforts.  He was in charge of camera & lighting set-up, sound check, interview, filming, editing; basically everything.  How he managed to take bits and pieces out of our 1-hour interview and turn them into something coherent as a whole.  I say, that’s a talent and dedication.

Broadcast on Cambridge TV, 23rd June on The M.A.C. (Music, Arts and Culture) programme as part of Cambridge News.


Our piano duet programme will be a good mixture of old time classics (Schubert’s Rondo in A & Fantasie in Fm & Schumann’s Bilder aus Osten) and something modern & exciting (Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques & Gorb’s Yiddish Dances).  Performing at the church venue is always a challenge because of the boomy acoustics.  Pedalling and tempi will have to be discussed and subtly adjusted on the day at the venue.  Having said that, one of the pieces we can take advantage of the church acoustics will probably be the Debussy piece. Irony is that this piece has the least number of notes between us, but yet causes the more hand clashes if we’re not careful.  Overcoming this slight problem, the sonority of this particular piece will surely sound magical in the church setting – to me, it’s an ultimate soundscape.  We hope that we’ll be able to give something to the audience that they can take home.  I look forward to having you with us on the day!

Piano Duet Concert (Marie-Noëlle Kendall & Yukie Smith)
Saturday, 9th July at 7.30pm
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge UK

For the concert details: New Europe Society Events