I suspect every piano teacher experiences instance where young students (of a couple of years or less into piano learning) suddenly gets into a mode of playing well known nursery rhymes such as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb, etc., as opposed to more challenging pieces they’re working on. I often grab this moment to teach a little about harmonisation by adding a simple left hand accompaniment without going into the details of harmonic function. Students at this stage are usually getting into playing with both hands or just starting to play with both hands, depending on each individual’s learning ability. So, introducing a well-known song to learn by ear, and then harmonising the melody is a manageable task. In fact, my students are finding it a welcoming activity where they can focus on using their ears and voice to learn to play familiar songs without notation. When a simple melody comes alive with a left hand accompaniment, it seems to give them a satisfying experience. Especially for those who have been playing elementary level music from a book.

It’s also worth noting that depending on the style of left hand arrangement, it can help further develop their hand coordination required to be able to tackle more challenging pieces (such as music with Alberti bass, contrapuntal music, etc.) in the coming months.

Having seen the benefit of this exercise, I’ve decided to put some well-known songs together into a little collection. My song choices are as follows:

1. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
2. Mary Had A Little Lamb
3. Wheels on the Bus
4. Lavender’s Blue
5. Polly Wolly Doodle
6. Little John (Hänschen klein)
7. London Bridge
8. Buz, Buz, Buz (Sum, Sum, Sum)
9. Winter Goodbye (Winter Ade)
10. Frère Jacques
11. This Old Man
12. Aura Lee
13. Happy Birthday

Basically, a melody is to be learned by ear and a simple left hand accompaniment (mainly in a form of blocked chord) is taught by rote. There’ll be some experiment with other forms of left hand patterns as a challenge. Most well-known melodies are not written out but the left hand patterns are. Empty staves can be used to transcribe the melody after having learned it by ear.  It’s suitable for mid elementary level piano students with limited reading skill.

Digital download available from SheetMusicPlus (USA) and Payhip (UK).

Happy playing by ear!

In the past when I had more time at hand, I used to having a go at transposing some intermediate level piano pieces that I can play from memory to another key, as a mind training exercise.  For example, J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C major, Invention in D minor, etc.  It’s certainly tested my aural skill and understanding level of the pieces to be able to transpose and I fully enjoyed doing it.  Having said that, transposing a whole piece is quite a task when you don’t have much time to spend (unless you have an amazing talent that you can transpose anything to any key on the spot!).  Then, I came to think, why can’t I write a couple of simple mini tunes so that I can exercise transposing to all 12 keys as a routine exercise for 5-10minutes a day, but in a style that I’m drawn to these days.

The idea is that you learn the tune in one key from memory, then transpose it to 11 other keys going around the circle of 5th, without referring to notation.  Here’re the two exercise tunes I’d like to share with you:

Transposing Exercise Tune No.1
Exploring diatonic scales and modes over the 3 most basic 7th chords used in a jazz idiom; major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th chords.

Transposing Exercise Tune No.2
Starting on the 5th note of Dorian mode, ending on the 4th note of Lydian mode . I didn’t specify the other scale names for this one as I believe every individual hears them differently in relation to harmony. Although I hear simple diatonic scales in the right hand, as a whole it’s very modal.

In my teaching, I often incorporate transposing exercises using even shorter and simpler tunes (4-bar or less) as soon as my students have learned a major scale in 12 keys. It’s a challenge, but surprisingly none of my students seem reluctant towards it. I suppose the reason being that they already know the tunes from memory; it’s kind of fun to search the right notes to be able to play the tune in 11 other keys; it exercises their thinking brain which helps them focus without getting bored; it works as a finger exercise; it’s much more fun than practising scales from tonic note to tonic note, etc.

And also as a teaching point of view, when they’ve learned to go through these transposing exercises, they’re equipped to be able to orientate themselves in learning a new piece of music in the keys with sharps and flats, which is a joy to observe as a teacher. I hope to be able to share these little transposing tunes in the future when I tested them enough with my students.

If you have anything similar to share, please do share.

Happy transposing!

One of the challenging tasks in teaching the beginners is to help them develop a steady pulse in their playing.  Learning a piano (or any instrument!) is an activity where various senses have to be coordinated, so it’s not always easy to think of keeping a steady pulse whilst trying to learn how to play the instrument.  So, I often use materials that are simple enough but can give them enough challenges to work on this particular skill as well as various technical and musical details that need to be developed at the same time.

I have various ways of helping my students depending on their age (children and adults both) and their abilities.  For this blog post, I’d like to focus on the age group of 4 to 8 years old.

Here’re some of the ways that are working well with my young students.  I also noted other technical & musical details that we’re working on at the same time:

Rhythm exercise (off-stave notation using red & blue dots)
Also working on:
– eyes following the dots in time
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination
– decoding skill (unique action applied to each symbol)
– understanding beat, metre, tied note and rest

Student A (4yo)

In this solo version, my student subconsciously added the pitch to her counting (I think I hear “Wheels on the Bus”)!


Twinkle exercise 1 – melody only (one hand)
Also working on:
– keyboard orientation
– singing whilst playing
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination
– hand/singer shape
– flexible wrist

Student A (4yo)

Working on an ensemble playing.  Student A is playing the melody in unison.


Twinkle exercise 2 – melody and accompaniment
Also working on:
– singing in Solfa whilst playing
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination
– chord playing (as one of the LH accompaniment styles)
– harmonic pattern
– sensible fingerings

Student B (5yo)
[Recorded at my student home during the lockdown period as a performance recording assignment, hence he’s not singing in this video although he was singing in Solfa during the practice period.]


Chord improvisation
Also working on:
– hand/finger shape (thumb and 5th together)
– Using larger muscles of arm and upper body to support the wrist/hand/finger  movement
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination
– counting and understanding note values, following notated rhythmic pattern
– exploring random harmony

Student A (4yo)

Student C (6yo)

Student E (8yo)
[As we improvise, when we hear a nice sounding chord, we’re repeating it twice.]


Piano duet – “Feel the Pulse” (using off-stave notation)
Also working on:
– hand/finger shape
– eyes following the dots in time
– understanding beat, metre and tied note
– feeling the subdivided beat (we’re singing quietly 16th notes to a beat whilst playing)
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination
– flexible wrist
– tone production
– dynamic shaping
– ensemble playing

Student D (7yo)


Piano duet – “Bumpy Ride” (taught by rote)
Also working on:
– keeping the rounded hand/finger shape
– learning 2-note legato playing (3rd and 2nd fingers)
– listening skill required for ensemble playing
– tone production
– articulation
– phrasing
– flexible wrist

Student C (6yo)
[Recorded at my students home during the lockdown period using a pre-recorded accompaniment I’ve made.]


Reading exercise
Also working on:
– hand/finger shape
– ear-eye-hand-voice coordination (new piece always starts with singing in Solfa!)
– understanding various tempo markings (Olson’s book focuses on 3 tempi: Andante, Largo and Allegro)
– listening skill required for ensemble playing
– keeping eyes on the music whilst playing
– flexible wrist
– phrasing
– tone production
– articulation
– smooth hand position change (2nd time played one octave higher)

Student C (6yo) – “Hot Cross Buns” (Andante)

At some point in their regular practice, learners will start using a metronome.  But before the learners can start using a metronome for practising, it’s important that they have developed, to some degree, a sense of steady pulse to follow in music making, so that the metronome click won’t become something of an annoying distraction but instead will eventually become their best practice partner.

Student B (5yo) – “Standing on My Tiptoes” (Andante)
[He’s been practising using a metronome recently; recorded at my students home during the lockdown period using a pre-recorded accompaniment I’ve made.]

Student B (5yo) -“Boats” (Largo)
[Recorded at my students home during the lockdown period using a pre-recorded accompaniment I’ve made.]


Music used are as follows:

  • Twinkel exercise 1 (duet): from Etude Duets for the Budding Pianists written by Yukie Smith
  • Twinkle exercise 2: from Children’s Song for developing hand coordination (for piano), arranged by Yukie Smith
  • Rhythm exercise: “Beat tapping 2” from Workbook for Piano 1 written by Yukie Smith
  • Piano duet: “Feel the Pulse“, based on J.S. Bach’s Prelude from Cello Suite No.1, BWV1007, from Etude Duets for the Budding Pianists & Workbook for Piano 1 written by Yukie Smith
  • Piano duet: “Bumpy Ride” from Etude Duets for the Budding Pianists written by Yukie Smith
  • Reading exercise: “Hot Cross Buns“, p.28; “Standing on My Tiptoes“, op.65; “Boats“, p.67 from The Perfect Start for Note Reading Book 1 written by Kevin & Julia Olson (all the pieces are piano duet)

N.B. Permission to share this video publicly is consented by the parents.

Since the announcement of guidance by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – “avoid non-essential travel and contact“, I’ve stopped teaching in- person for the time being. As many teachers have since then, I’ve also moved onto teaching via Skype. It took me a bit of experiments before I found the best set-up I could possibly have with what I have (I don’t have iPhone and didn’t want to use iPad). I thought I’d share it here.

Main device setting

My piano room has a corner desk where I have my PC (connected to the internet via Ethernet cable), screen and web cam. Since my piano is located a little bit too far from the PC, I hooked up the following parts to bring everything near to the piano:

  • 4-port USB 3.0 data hub to connect my web cam, mouse and Zoom H5n digital recorder (bus-powered) used as an external mic
  • 5m USB 3.0 extension cable to connect the 4-port hub to my PC
  • DVI to S-VGA cable to be able to use the extra screen I have with a S-VGA port on it (I have HDMI and DVI ports on my PC; HDMI port is used for my main desktop screen, which I needed to keep where it is)

The 4-port hub is attached to the back of my music stand as shown below:

P1020991

(The grey rectangular object is a dry wipe magnetic eraser, just in case you’re wondering…)

When I didn’t have all the parts mentioned above, I used my old laptop with a wireless connection as a temporary solution (luckily, the router was in the same room), it wasn’t ideal but it worked. Since I’ve managed to connect everything to my PC, everything improved greatly.

Other accessories

For my web cam:

  • 1 small mic boom stand (for Position 1)
  • 1 standard mic boom stand (for Position 2)
  • 1 mic holder, which came with Zoom H5n digital recorder (the most useful attachment I’ve ever had! – with this holder screwed into my web cam, I can move the camera around when necessary instead of moving the boom stand around):

Zoom mic holder   P1030014

 

For my Zoom H5n digital recorder (connected via USB):

  • 1 standard boom stand

The built-in mic on my web cam (Logitec C920 HD) wasn’t ideal for music instrument, although fine with normal voice conversation; hence I’m using an external mic.

Here’s what it looks like all set up:

P1020983

I also have the audio fed through the Zoom H5n rather than from the PC by selecting headphone (H5) in the Audio & Video setting under Speaker in Skype:

mic & headphone settings_2

 

Position 1 – showing the overall view of the piano and myself:

P1020997  position1

The red attachment which is holding my Zoom H5n is a flexible camera tripod that came with an old camera I had:

P1030004

 

Position 2 – showing my hands on piano from above:

P1020996  position2

The little table next to my piano is a lap tray sitting on my swivel piano stool.

My portable music stand is turning out to be serving various purposes. I usually keep my PC keyboard on it when I need to type something.

Finally, here’re some points that I’m finding out using Skype so far:

  • Wireless connection is at its best when the router is in the same room as your main device, unless the device is directly connected to the router via Ethernet cable. Bad reception is noticeable when there’s a lot of traffic if your device is on the wireless network and one room or more away from the router.
  • Most of my students are using iPhone, iPad or laptop with wireless connection. Hence what I’m receiving at my end is not superb but acceptable.  At least, what they are getting is a good quality visual/sound, which is important.
  • I use a headphone but all my students aren’t using it, which seem working fine.
  • Although the sound quality is not superb, I can still hear subtle dynamic shaping that my students are trying to bring out.
  • I can manage to play a piano duet with my student with a metronome (I need to count in with a metronome, not the student). There is latency and I can’t hear my student playing, so I need to stick to the metronome but my student can hear both of us playing in time.
  • Showing my hands from above can work in a similar way to how I’m used to demonstrate during in-person lessons
  • Having a camera positioned directly above my head (see Position 2 in the picture) is very useful when showing something on the paper or write something on the paper as I can do so right under the camera without turning over the paper.
  • I speak too loudly unnecessarily and my voice gets tired quickly. I’d need to learn not to.
  • As I always ask my student/student’s parent to call me, it’s useful if s/he sends me a message saying ‘OK to call?’ when I’m still engaged in the previous lesson. So that s/he won’t have to keep trying calling me until I’m able to answer.
  • I haven’t experienced this yet but Skype can get hacked to send around spam messages/malwares, etc. as any email application can, so never to open any suspicious link that comes into the message feed.

I hope to add more in the list over the next few months.

Happy Skype piano lessons!

 

 

To help some of my beginner students who find it difficult to subdivide the beat evenly, I came up with the following ‘visualising exercise’.

  1. As you count ‘1,2,3,4’, you tap each finger. Repeat it a couple of times until you establish a steady beat (no need to use a metronome at this stage, which will be a distraction for those who haven’t cultivated the inner pulse).

beat subdivision_1

  1. Now add one tap between the 1st and 2nd beat, without loosing a steady beat (i.e. without the delay getting onto the 2nd beat).

beat subdivision_2

  1. Now this one!

beat subdivision_3

This way, you can ‘see’ the spacing between the beat.  It also helps work on your listening skill as you try to match the speed of your counting and tapping throughout.

 

  1. Here’re the notated rhythms for No. 2 and No.3. Now, go through the same exercises (Nos.2&3), but this time with your eyes following the notes, not on your fingers.

beat subdivision exercise_2&3

Here’re some more exercises:

 

beat subdivision exercise_5

beat subdivision_1

beat subdivision_4.jpg

beat subdivision exercise_6

beat subdivision_4-2

beat subdivision_4-3

beat subdivision exercise_7

(For a holding note, you can point each finger but no tapping, so that you’re aware of where the main beat occurs – in this case, on the dot!)

beat subdivision_5

beat subdivision_6.jpg

One of my adult beginners was having a problem with the following rhythm pattern appeared in Graham Lynch’s Paris – Valse (from Sound Sketches, Book 1).

paris_valse

After going through the following two exercises,

Exercise_1

paris_valse_rhythm

beat subdivision_7.jpg

Exercise 2
(for a holding note/rest, you can point each finger but no tapping, so that you’re aware of where the main beat occurs)

paris_valse_rhythm2beat subdivision_8She has finally managed to internalised it after one week and played the melody beautifully!

Happy rhythm learning!

One day, one of my beginner piano students brought a mini hand-made booklet to the lesson, titled ‘Pretty Chord Book’.

She’s one of my young students who’s got the ear for picking out ‘pretty chords’ (mostly very jazzy!) as she explores the sound on the piano ever since she started the piano two years ago.  As soon as she made a link between the letter names and the piano keys, she started to note down the chords she found ‘pretty’ in her own way, so that she could show it to me.  Being a strong by-ear player, her reading skill is progressing at a somewhat slow speed, so transcribing using a standard manuscript wasn’t an option.

In her little booklet, I found scribbles of ‘visual off-stave notation’, showing what she found as ‘pretty chords’.  Reading off what was written wasn’t easy, so it took her a little time to reaslise them.  So, I’ve decided to create a system for her so that she can write down her ideas in a way that chords look more organised and is similar to how you read chords on the stave, and I can read!  Recently, she told me she found another pretty chord.  This is what I found in her little ‘Pretty Chord Book’, and here’s what it looks like:

 

pretty chord book

Regarding the colour coding, here’s what she’s used to see on the piano keys.  So, she can link the colour with particular pitch range across the keyboard.

colour-coded piano keys

If reading vertically is somewhat confusing, you could turn the booklet 90 degree clockwise and read it sideways like this:

pretty chord book2

I must admit, some chords she finds are proper jazz chord as her bass player dad and I observe.  I hope she’ll understand how some of her invented chords are in fact sophisticated jazz chords.  Hopefully, this booklet will come in handy in the future when she starts learning more about harmonies and its functions.

Templates for making a ‘off-stave chord transcription’ booklet is now available for free download from here.

 

 

Happy chord playing!

Finally on display! Rhythm puzzle pieces that I’ve been using with my students to help them ‘visualise’ the mechanics of rhythms.

P1020032

Puzzle pieces are made of foam board.  I had the images professionally printed (gloss finish) and glued it onto the surface and cut to pieces using a scarpel knife.  The large magnetic board shown in the picture is a self-adhesive ferrous sheet fixed onto a foam board.  The board is secured to the wall using 4 pieces (2cm x 2cm) of heavy duty stick-on Velcro (I didn’t want to make holes on the wall).

Here’re some examples for how I use these pieces with my students:

  • Creating 2 versions of rhythm tunes using all the selected notes given (shown in the picture below).

rhythm tune making

The worksheet I use for this game is shown below:

rhythm tune making

  • Showing how dotted rhythm works (shown in the picture below).


P1020033


I often enjoy watching my students doing something outside the box with the puzzle pieces whilst they’re waiting for their turn for the their lesson. They use their imagination and discover something new.

I’m currently upgrading the puzzle piece material to lightweight plywood (poplar) for more durability.  I’ll post the update when it’s completed!  Hopefully, it’ll soon be added to my website shop.  But it’s a labour-intensive process to make a set, so it’ll have to be made-to-order base.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share how the original idea evolved into this final product:

It took me several years before what has started as a simple rhythm card game into something more tangible.  This set is turning out to be a real time saver in my teaching when the necessity of explaining (and constant reminding!) how metre and rhythm works arises in a short 30 minutes lesson time.

Finding the appropriate number of puzzle pieces for them to be useful, but not overwhelming was a challenge.  Here’s the picture showing the development of my rhythm puzzle set before it’s finally taken its shape.

P1020098


—update—
In addition to the pyramid style (note in the centre of each piece), I’ve made a new set which is duration-based as shown below (note to the left of each piece):

P1020304

Both versions are available for purchse from my website.

Happy teaching!

 

One of my 12 years old students came to the piano lesson the other day with lit up eyes saying he’s made a discovery in the circle of 5th wheel he’s been using for his tetrachord exercises.

Here’s what he explained to me in his own words.

Parallel keys are quarter apart in the circle of 5th

In short,

“Parallel keys are quarter apart in the circle of 5th.”

In details,

For major key to its tonic minor go quarter around anti-clockwise.

For minor key to its tonic major, go quarter around clockwise.

 

Happy discovery!

 

Solfège (meaning ‘sight-singing’) is a vital part of music training to cultivate reading & aural skills, musicality and a sense of harmony.

I thought I’d share the information of 2 outstanding solfège & rhythm exercise book series I brought back from Japan. One written by a well established piano pedagogue 呉 暁 (Go, Aki) and the other by a group of teachers from The Music School for Children at Toho Gakuen School of Music (桐朋学園大学音楽学部附属 子供のための音楽教室). It’s a good news that these books seem to be able to be delivered directly to overseas addresses from Japan. Since solfège (combined with rhythm study) is a well established part of piano education in Japan, it’s easier to find books targeted for this particular study. I’ve just started using with Go’s solfège book 1 with one of my pupil who has just passed ABRSM grade 4 piano to develop a sense of harmony and improve his sight-reading.

才能を育てる子供のソルフェージュ (上)
呉 暁 (著)
” Solfège That Cultivates Musical Talent (part I)”
written by Aki Go

In the introduction, the author states the main focus in this book is to “sing musically with a sense of harmony”. If a student is weak on rhythm, it’s advised to supplement with rhythm exercises separately.

The book starts with singing primary chords (I, IV, V) in a broken form to get you used to the underlying harmony for the melody line. The author also encourages a student to learn to harmonise the melody based on primary chords, then onto to compose a melody and accompaniment. This book is also recommended to use as dictation (transcription) exercises.

part I

 

リズム練習とソルフェージュ(1) リズムを叩きながら歌おう
久木山 直 (著), 当摩 泰久 (著), 渕上 祐子 (著)
“Rhythm Training and Solfège: Let’s sing whilst tapping the rhythm” Book 1
written by Naoshi Kukiyama, Yasuhisa Tohma,Yuko Fuchigami

There’re three lessons in this book. Each lesson consists of one-part rhythm exercises, two-part exercise and solfège exercises with rhythm tapping. Lesson one melodies stay within the intervals of 2nd and 3rd; lesson two 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th; lesson three with accidentals. Rhythms are quite simple throughout the book, hence students can focus on singing and 2-part reading.

solfege and rhythm1-2

*******

For young beginners, the well-trusted series written again by a group of teachers fromThe Music School for Children at Toho Gakuen School of Music is also recommended.

子供のためのソルフェージュ(1a)
子供のための音楽教室 (編集)
Solfège for Children 1a
written by The Music School for Children

Book 1a stays entirely in C major (in 2/4, 3/4,/4/4, 3/8 and 6/8), exploring all intervals except 7th.

子供のためのソルフェージュ(1a)2.jpg

Book 1b explores more keys (C,F, G, Am, D) in addition to more time signatures (2/2, 3/2).

子供のためのソルフェージュ(1b)

*******

When students reach the level of end of 1b, they can move onto:
Solfège des Solfège” written by Adolphe-Léopold Danhauser
50 Lessons, op.9for medium voice written by Giuseppe Concone.

Happy solfège!

Balancing the dynamics between the hands may be one of the most difficult techniques to teach to piano beginners. I have tried many different ways but I’ve finally found the most effective and quickest way to help my students achieve this. I thought I’d share it here.

Rather than teaching this technique in a pieces of music, I find it best to do so in a simple scale or finger exercise where students can focus on their finger control supported by flexible wrists, arms and shoulders and most importantly ‘listening ears’ with eyes open or closed as necessary.

In my teaching, I use my Finger Exercises Before Hanon, that they know well by heart. After the ‘Activities’ listed in each exercise, I give extra challenges as follows:

 

  1. RH plays legato whilst LH plays staccato: learning to execute two contrasting articulations between the hands (with the lateral movement of the wrist for RH and vertical movement of the wrist for LH)

 

  1. Swap the articulation between the hands (RH staccato & LH legato)

 

  1. Play RH forte (either legato or staccato, whichever easier first) whilst LH presses the key surfaces gently without letting any sound coming out of the piano, playing legato! (my students who thought it was impossible for the first try, managed to do so in a day or two; it’s just like learning how to ride a bicycle, once learned it’s quite easy to do!)

 

  1. Now, LH brings out a little bit of sound, say pianissimo, by pressing the key to the bottom very slowly whilst the right plays forte: learning to differentiate the speed of the key-press between the hands to control the dynamics. (Students, by then, realise that they need more muscle controls to play softly than loudly.)

 

  1. Next step up will be to play RH forte and LH piano both legato with solid sound (see my other blog post: Therapy Putty – Finger Strengthening Exercises). Soft but solid? You’d definitely need the support of your arm weight and flexible wrist movement to control. It may be helpful to start with playing RH with lift fingers with the axial rotation of the wrist, whilst LH with slightly lower wrist positioning than RH with lower lift fingers. Exaggeration often helps to work on subtle control.

 

Finally, for applying this technique to the piece of music, I often refer to this exercise when I hear my students playing with no dynamic balance between the hands by saying,

‘Do you remember the exercises we did where your RH plays forte and LH plays piano? Can you try doing that in this piece?’

They stops and thinks for a second and try it out in the music they’re playing. Then, out comes the result! Eventually, I won’t need to remind them of this technique and they use their ears to control the balance between the hands required for the piece of music they’re playing.

Happy playing!