As a teacher, understanding each student as a person and also as a learner can be often challenging. It could be anything related to behaviour, listening skill, technical skill, aural skill, reading skill, observing skill, etc. Each individual has her/his own way of understanding and processing certain elements of what s/he is learning during the lesson. How each student feels about the lesson itself is also different. For a small children, it’s often necessary to liaison with the parent(s) outside the lesson time to fully understand how they feel about the lesson to make some improvements if the necessity arises. It’s a teacher’s important job to pick up little details that are particular to each individual, whether it’s a habit or attitude. It could be something as simple as how the students perceive certain subjects. By observing how each student responds and learns, a teacher tries and uses different tactics; by guiding them via asking simple questions or suggestions, visually guiding them or using analogy, so that a student can ‘see’ what a teacher means, etc. Or very often, physically using tactile tools to ‘understand’ the fact. It’s vital for a teacher to find a unique approach suited to each student, which can allow her/him to be able to tackle what seems to be the problem. I’d like to share a couple of cases that I found the most challenging but managed to find the way forward in both cases. One case is about the change in personal feeling about the piano lesson. The other about finding the way to turn impossible to possible in relation to aural test preparation for the practical exam.

Case 1: 8 years old student who’s been coming to the lessons for 4 years
She’s very shy but has a strong character, wanting to do well. Making mistakes can be very distressful to her. She’s learned over the years that making mistakes is part of the learning process because it gives her way to learn how to fix the problems and try different ways to improve her playing. It was fine for a while, then suddenly, I couldn’t get a word out of her to whatever question or suggestion, or even to a yes-or-no question. She eventually went into tears. I thought she started to loose her interests in piano and to feel that attending the piano lesson is becoming a painful experience. After a while, I suggested we maybe should give piano lessons a little break for a few week, then I asked her mother to discuss with her what her true feelings about coming to the lesson, how she feels during the lesson, etc. It turned out all she wanted to do was to have a lesson with me alone, without the presence of her mother or sister. She simply didn’t want to make mistakes in front of them. She’ll be turning 9 years old soon. I think her ‘self’ as an individual is coming out and she’s now ready to be responsible for her own work as far as piano lessons are concerned. She came to the lesson the other day on her own. She had a big smile on her face and we had a very positive and forward lesson. She’s all right now.

Case 2: 12 years old piano grade exam candidate, who been playing the piano for 6 years.
Although, she’s been always encouraged to sing while playing whilst learning the new pieces, she seems to have problems with singing back simple unfamiliar melodies she just heard. We’ve tried all sorts of ways to fix the problem but none seemed to help. As I thought it could be one of those very rare cases that you can’t relate to pitch you hear in sound, I came up with a different approach by going through what she’s actually very good at. She plays pieces by heart mostly, but this doesn’t mean she learns by ear. When I discovered that her way of learning pieces is very visual, by that I mean ‘by the movement of fingers’, not ‘by the notation’.

First stage
I asked her to sit at the piano and ‘play back’ what I sing. Then, I discovered that in her mind all the intervals are much wider than she thought she heard. Gradually she made herself realise that the intervals are much smaller and started to play back correct melodic phrases. Now that she made a link between the sound and interval with a help from her own finger movements, we moved onto another approach so that she can sing back without the help of a piano.

Second stage
I played a smallest fragment of a melodic phrase to start with, say just 3 notes stepwise, and at the same time asked her to move her finger as if she plays over every note on the piano. After she’s done that, she managed to sing back perfectly. As long as she can imagine herself playing what she’s hearing, she can now sing back with correct pitch. For a week, she practised this way with the help from her mother (to check all the intervals are correct), she can now almost perfectly do ‘echo’ section of the aural exam. It was truly remarkable improvement. It made me realise how important it is for a teacher to focus on the strong points of a student when s/he is showing the weakest point. The exam result just came back, and she passed with a distinction.  All the hard work has certainly paid off.

I hope these lesson episodes will help some teachers out there who are facing similar challenges with their students. Best wishes!

Today, one of my 10 years old students proudly showed me what he’s picked up from one of the piano tutorials on YouTube over the weekend.  In his playing, I detected a few fragments of that popular circus theme tune for clown(s).  When I played the full melody to ask him if it was what he meant, his eye shined with joy. This piece of music is actually written as a military march and originally titled Grande Marche Chromatique.  Full of chromatic scales with quirky harmonies here and there.  For 10 years old beginner students, it’d be a hard work to be able to play it properly but his fascination with a chromatic scale will certainly help overcome a few hurdles. So, I’ve decided to arrange a very short and easy version of it. Luckily, I found out that this piece of music is now in a public domain, so I’m delighted to be able to share the sheet music with you right here.

Free sheet music download:

Entry of the Gladiator by Julius Fucík

Have fun!

In one of the Jane Sebba’s Abracadabra piano books, I found the most useful word rhythms to teach one of the most commonly used polyrhythms; 3 against 2.  She gives us a tune called ‘Cold Cup of Tea’.  This is how both hands fit into the syllables. 3 against 2 As you may find out, it works instantly without any complication.  Now, can we use this brilliant idea to learn trickier polyrhythms such as 4 against 3.  How about this: 4 against 3 Works for you? Next step is to apply this exercise to your playing.  Instead of tapping every syllable with your hand, try using different finger for each syllable. For 3 against 2: 3 against 2-fingers For 4 against 3: 4 against 3-fingers When you become comfortable with the above finger exercises, try swap the patterns between the hands. For 3 against 2: 3 against 2-fingers-2 For 4 against 3: 4 against 3-fingers-2 Are you ready for the final challenge?  Try saying ‘1, 2, 3′ instead of ‘Cold Cup of Tea’ and ‘1, 2, 3, 4′ instead of ‘Cold Cup of Tea and Buns’. To go further, pick the notes of your choice on the piano and try with the sound.  You can also try different fingerings. Working on such polyrhythms as these certainly work hard on improving your coordination between the hands, eyes and also ears (always listen attentively to what you’re hearing, which will play a great part in improving your coordination!). Good luck!

When one of my young piano students just finished learning the final piece from the W. Gillock’s Accent on Solo Book 1, he suddenly played ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with his right hand, as if he was saying, ‘Remember this song? I can play it so easily now.’ Then, I thought why not recycle this song to introduce the Alberti Bass, which is one of the most common left hand patterns appeared in many sonatinas and sonatas of standard classical repertoires. Here’s how we did:

1. Sing and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with the right hand while rotating the left wrist in the air as if you’re turning a screw driver. One syllable for each wrist turn:

Words & LH & RH RH pattern only

2. Do the same exercise as above, except the left hand now stays on the keyboard surface while rotating it (no need to worry about playing any note with the left hand just yet!).

3. Sing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ while playing C & G alternately with the left hand, maintaining the wrist rotation. Words & LH LH pattern only

4. Sing and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with the right hand while playing C & G alternately with the left hand, maintaining the wrist rotation. The player should focus on the right hand pattern (visually and aurally) while the teacher can help rotating the player’s left hand, so that the s/he gets used to the feeling of moving the hands in a different way. RH&LH

5. When playing the above exercise becomes comfortable, change C & G to F & G when singing ‘little lamb’ for the second time and also ‘fleece is white as’. End the song with C – G – C instead of C – G – C – G. This exercise will keep the player busy for a while! LH pattern only2

6. When ready, add an extra note (E) for the first left hand pattern (C & G). Try without the right hand first to learn this new pattern. Always practise with singing the song. Play E instead of C for the second time (C-G-E-G, C-G-E-G…)

LH pattern-alberti bass

7. Finally, if the player feels ready, add an extra note (B) for the second left hand pattern (F &G). Play B instead of F for the first time (B-G-F-G, B-G-F-G…)

LH pattern-alberti bass2

Good luck!

Yesterday was a revisiting experience for me and also for my husband. It was the annual Alumni event at one of the colleges in Cambridge. I’d been invited to perform a couple of times in the past but this year’s Alumni was somewhat special since it was the last event presented by the retiring Master whom we’ve known some years. It’s been several years since we last visited the college. We saw some familiar faces but somewhat older as you can imagine. Some transformation around the college, we’ve noticed too! The Alumni event usually ends with a mini concert followed by the Alumni dinner. For this concert, I asked the violinist, Mifune Tsuji to join in. Over the past years we’ve been building up our favourite repertoires, and we picked a few for this event. The theme for the Alumni concert was ‘Music Without Frontiers’, exploring eclectic selection of music from around the world. Our programme started with my piano solo, playing G. Allevi’s Downtown. Followed by Miyagi’s The Sea in Spring, Piazzolla’s Libertango (The CelloProject version), Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Then, two piano solos, playing Grieg’s Arietta and Debussy’s Arabesque No.2 followed the highlight of our programme, my transcription/arrangement of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango for violin and piano, recently published from the Piazzolla’s original publisher, Bèrben. It was our public premier performance and we managed to record it but the microphones position was not ideal since the room was very small and the audiences’ seats were close up to where we were performing, there were only two obvious spots for them. Either the piano side or the violin side; we definitely didn’t want to put them in the middle to distract the audiences’ view. Since the piano lid was fully open, my choice was to take the violin side. Although, the recording condition wasn’t ideal, I think it captured the momentum of our performance. Both the violin and piano parts are mostly truthful to the Piazzolla’s original but we allowed ourselves to have some rooms to put our own stamps on it. It was well received and again I think we created a very good programme to keep the audience engaged to the end.

In the past, I’ve come across with quite a few discussions in various forum sites regarding the violin and piano version of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango. It’s originally written in C minor for the cello and piano, and Sofia Gubaidulina did a fabulous virtuosic arrangement for the violin and piano that are well known amongst the violinists who fell for the charm of Piazzolla’s music. Having played the Gubaidulina’s versions with the dynamic violinist Mifune Tsuji on several occasions, my desire to perform this piece in its original form started to grow. As I was making an attempt to arrange it in its original key for the violin and piano, I discovered a couple of problems; some of the notes in the violin part go lower than A below middle C; tonal balance between the violin and piano is not quite right; those who are used to play the Gubaidulina’s version in D minor have to relearn the whole thing! So, I’ve decided to maintain Gubaidulina’s choice in key. As a result, I had to apply a compromise to the modulation after the slow middle section (missing from the Gubaidulina’s version) so that the second libero e cantabile section is played in the subdominant key (G minor) rather than staying in the same key (D minor) as the first libero e cantabile section. If I were to keep the modulation as the original, the Piu Mosso section ends up starting in A minor, which is a perfect 5th higher than the Gubaidulina’s version. This simply was not going to work! By compromising on the modulation, the Piu Mosso section now starts in the same key as the Gubaidulina version. This new arrangement is now available from Bèrben Edizioni Muscicali, Italy. Catalogue number: 5810. Or from the SheetMusicPlus online shop in the USA. I’m happy to announce that Mifune Tusji and I will be giving the premier performance of the piece on 27th September 2014, at the Alumni event at St Edmunds College, Cambridge. I hope that this new arrangement will find its usefulness and deliver the essence of the piece that Piazzolla originally intended. Piazzolla-Le Grand Tango

—update 1— Following the premier performance of the above work, I’m giving away 3 copies (sheet music) to the musicians who may be interested in performing it in the future. Please send me a message. All I’d ask of you is a postage (by paypal) and to share the information of this work. Thank you. NB: Permission to give free copies away is granted by the publisher, Bèrben s.r.l.

—update 2— Two copies are given to the violinists from Hong Kong and Finland, so far.  One more copy is available. (as of February 2015)

—update 3— The last copy went to the violinst from Poland.  Thank you all again for your interest in this new version.
15th February 2015

—update 4— A few more online shops appear to have it in stock.  Here are those I’ve found recently:

Japan
Academia Music

Swizerland
MusikHug

Italy
Birdland

USA
The Juilliard Store

I rarely share a story regarding what’s happening in my piano studio but I had a very heart-warming experience with one of my 9 years old piano beginners.  I thought I’d share this story with you here.

One of my 9 years old beginners brought his grandma (visiting from Edinburgh) to the piano lesson yesterday. Once in the piano room, he prepared the cushions on the sofa for her, and started to play ‘Pink Panther’ instead of the piece we were currently working on. So, I whispered to his grandma ‘He wants to show off!’ and he turned around and grinned at me as he continued playing.

During the whole lesson, he showed the best behaviour I’ve ever seen and managed to focus on every details we worked on and covered quite an amount of tasks: learned a new etude by rote, fixed problems spots to be able to play a duet, did aural training by rhythm dictation, transcribed a picture-notated score into a standard notation, read notations to learn a new piece partially, did a pattern analysis to find a sequence, etc.

When it was time to leave, he gently escorted his grandma out of the piano room.  Both looked content :)

Grandma, please come back any time!

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