It’s been a while since I started to use morse code for my piano students as a tool to interpret some tricky rhythms in music.   Morse code having only two rhythmic syllables (di for short sound, dah for long sound) makes it simpler to help them get the ‘feel’ of those rhythms of syncopated nature in particular, without knowing their notational values.  Children generally like decoding games, so when I find the rhythm that’s useful to interpret in morse code, I ask them to listen to the morse code signal (usually played on one note of the piano) and find its morse code letter on the morse code chart on the wall.  We sometimes create a tune out of morse code letters, which is another fun part!  ‘Decoding’ and the fact you only need to know ‘two rhythmic syllables’ seems to tickle their inner curiosity.  It’s a great to tool to exercise the creative brain that every child has.

Here’s the sample image of the morse code chart poster I made.  It’s been professionally printed on 150gsm silk paper.  It’s available for sale from my website shop:

s_Morse Code Chart_sample

I’m putting together a collection of morse code tunes I wrote for my students.  They are particularly popular amongst those whose music reading skill is still at the elementary level.  Focusing on the rhythms and finger positions on the keyboard makes it much simpler to learn some catchy tunes that you don’t usually come across until you reach early intermediate level.  No notation usually means that it helps open students’ ears to listen to their own playing more, and to just focus on the rhythms and playing.  I’m looking forward to making this collection available to the public in the near future.

Happy creative learning!

So, students can learn and play the pieces well but seem to be having a problem with getting better at sight-reading. Probably the most common problem!

A few things to remember what it takes to be a good sight-reader:

  1. The notes and patterns on the stave has to enter your head/ mind as the sound however imaginary that is.
  2. A reasonable piano playing skill has to be there as a foundation, upon which you can practise developing the skill to transfer the imaginary sound into movements of your fingers.
  3. The understanding of tonality (major, minor and others based on various scales) is another important element that’s required to be a good sight-reader. If you’ve played enough music in the learning process, you’ve probably developed a good sense of guessing how some particular phrases should sound like, according the key signature (and time signature and even tempo indications!).

When you learn a piece of music, you start with small fragments of phrases to practise before putting them altogether. In sight-reading, you don’t have time to do all that. But then, how can you get a better sense of what the music should be like from just having a look at the music you haven’t seen before?

Recently, working with a couple of my piano students preparing for grade 5 piano, I came up with a very useful but also therapeutic method of preparing to be more comfortable with sight-reading.

What if you have less stress of finding the written notes accurately but you have a freedom of choosing the notes from the scale of the key you wish to practise in. The only thing you’ll have to follow is the rhythmic pattern given to you. Yes, it’s kind of an improvisation exercise. Improvisation can sound daunting but if you work within a certain given frame, it can be very therapeutic and at the same time, you get the feel of how the music in a particular key should sound like and also how they should feel like under your fingers.  This exercise also encourages students to be more aware of the rhythmic values in music which often tend to be forgotten.

For this particular exercise, I’m using Paul Harris’ Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 5 for piano. Each section of 8 stages of exercises come with a couple of rhythmic exercises.

Most students may be familiar with practising rhythms with one note on the left hand and another on the right. Rather than leaving it at that, I thought why not use this as a framework to practise improvising in the keys that students should be familiar with in each section. That way, students will learn to orientate themselves around the scale notes in various keys and also what’s important is they will learn how to create a musical melody. You can’t create a musical melody unless you hear some form of melodic patterns in your head before playing.

At the beginning, all of my students who tried this method started with repeating on one note for a phrase, then change to another at the end of the phrase because they didn’t know yet what to do to create a musical phrase.

So, I said, try to create a musical melody as you’d hear in music you listen to rather than putting random notes together to fill rhythmic phrases. A series of notes going up, then down; they can be short or longer or repeated, call and response idea, etc. like a song you’d be singing.  This idea seems have played a trick on them.

It’d be good to start with the 5-finger position (5 scale notes from the key that students need to work on) in the right hand and the left hand simply plays the tonic note on the beat throughout. They could swap hands at some point if they can take that challenge!  Or introduce two bass notes, tonic and dominant of the key, or even incorporate broken chord or oom pah accompaniment, etc.

After a couple of attempts, students usually get a hang of creating some pleasing melody, like a song to hum along. Now move onto trying extending the scale notes to an octave range but confine the melodic movements to the top part of the scales in the first half of the tune, then gradually coming down to the lower part of the scales. For minor keys, add the leading note (sharpened 7th) to the 5-finger pattern so that students get used to the sound of the accidental that tends to be always present! If you can hear it, you can sing it, if you can sing it, you can play it!

If students have done ample improvisation exercises in various keys, they have a better grasp of tonality of each key. Now, it’s time to put to test to see how this will help in working through sight-reading exercises. The first things to do is to try singing the melody line in your head with the correct rhythms, then you have some idea how the music should sound like. Remember to let the inner ear to hear guide your finger work. Analyse the patterns, find the tricky phrases where both hands come together (how does each line moves? stepwise together or staggered?), know the harmonic structure (tonic-dominant-tonic?) in the bass patterns like Alberti bass, so that you can focus on the right melody, is the melody line more scalic or chordal?, etc.

Finally, practise as many sight-reading as you can manage regularly as well as give it a try to an improvisation method.  There comes a time when things suddenly falls into place!

I hope this method helps bring some fun and therapeutic side of sigh-reading exercise.

Happy sight-reading!

It’s unusual for me to share my practice session publicy and also to use a digital piano for it(!) but I thought some pianists/accompanists may find it useful.  Here it goes:

Pre-rehearsal stage
The main focus was to bring it up to the indicated tempo (138bpm) without loosing the intricacy of contrapuntal texture and the bouncy rhythmic nature of this piece.  What I found out through using drum beat patterns rather than a metronome was that it’s sharpened up my listening ear to be able to check how my 16th notes (semiquavers) are doing to greater details.  Truly useful exercise to go through before rehearsing with the clarinet players in a week’s time.  And it was fun too!

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 SheetMusicPlus.com.

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 SheetMusicPlus.com.

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 SheetMusicPlus.com:

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 sheet music is avalable from my web site.
The audio is 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 (https://yukiestpiano.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/368/), 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.