I just received a new course catalogue from the Benslow Music Trust, which includes Tim Richard’s ABRMS Jazz Piano Syllabus for Piano Teachers, which was introduced for the first time last year.  I thought I’d contribute my thought regarding the course, hoping that it would encourage many apprehensive piano teachers to try it out themselves.

I suspect most classically trained pianists and teachers would feel hesitant when they hear the word ‘jazz improvisation’, let alone working such art form with their students. In my view, it’s not that we’re not interested in it, it’s just that the whole concept involved in jazz improvisation seems very foreign to us and we simply don’t know where to start. But yet, we know that children in general love catchy jazzy tunes and their choice of music from the exam pieces most definitely includes a jazzy one. You may say, why bother with improvisation when they can enjoy playing jazz music from the notation only?

Children are naturally curious and imaginative being. Young ages are the best period in their lives where they can explore unknown territories carefree. Just for that reason only, I strongly feel that it’s our duty as piano teachers to provide an environment for them to be able to explore the world of piano playing from various angles. Especially creative approaches that would lead them to acquire a skill to think outside the box. Jazz improvisation can be one of such creative exercises that teachers can incorporate into their conventional piano lessons. But where do we start? This exact question lead me to attend a 3-day course at the Benslow Music; ABRSM Jazz Piano Syllabus for Piano Teachers. The tutor was Tim Richards, a very seasoned jazz pianist and inspirational (and very, very patient!) teacher. From the title, the course seemed to be intended for piano teachers who are preparing their students or themselves for the ABRSM jazz piano exams but I felt that it also could be suited for those who:

  • wish to have a little dip into the world of jazz improvisation without any previous knowledge
  • are interested in learning a few new ideas for jazz improvisation
  • are interested in how basic jazz improvisation can be introduced and taught in piano lessons
  • are budding piano teachers or teachers-to-be who wish to build their teaching ideas
  • wish to get a grasp of basic jazz harmony and structure

‘Jazz improvisation’ can sound very daunting for those who have never tried it before. But what if you say instead, ‘Let’s have fun messing around with a few notes from the scale and create our own tune!’ I’m sure that many teachers have already done that with their students, especially when students are at the early beginner level. In my personal opinion, this jazz course for teachers was to learn one of such methods that you could have fun yourself or with your students in a structured way while getting to know different music styles; improving your aural skill, ear-eye-hand coordination, steady pulse, phrasing, musical shaping and articulation, understanding of the form & rhythmic and harmonic languages, etc. Here’s a quick view of what went on in during the three days:

  • Blues – 12-bar harmonic progression; 2 pentatonic scales; basic improvisation using 3-note; various bass patterns; improvisation techniques, etc.
  • Listening/suggested listning to jazz piano masters – cultivating the ear to understand the feel of vairous jazz piano styles by listening to many influential pianists in jazz history, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Yancey, Mead ‘Lux’ Lewis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Theornius Monk, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Wynton Kelly, Abdullah Ibraim to name a few.
  • Basic jazz chords including tritone – chord(LH) & arpeggio(RH) workout routines around the circle of fifth
  • Basic jazz scales – Mixolydian, Dorian, Lydian, Flat 3 Pentatonic, Minor Pentatonic; chord & scale relationship
  • Harmonic analysis – recognising I-IV-V & II-V-I in the tune both visually and aurally
  • RH & LH coordination – chord with rhythmic variations (LH) & simple scale pattern(RH)
  • Jazz/Classical style comparison – pedal use; treatment of quavers; articulation; tempo, etc.
  • Performing – pieces from ABRSM Jazz Piano Pieces books with improvisation added (one each from Blues, Standard and Contemporary sections)
  • Slash chords – polychord (2 different chords played between the hands)
  • Embellishment methods – top harmony; grace note; glissando; arpeggio, etc.
  • Fun with scales & arpeggios! – various walking bass(LH) & major scale/broken chord/arpeggio (RH); duet with a teacher or solo to exercise improvisation
  • Various LH chord style – rhythmic variation; swing & Latin feel; shell; rootless voicing
  • Improv within a secured comfort zone – 5-finger position(RH); start with any note of the scale; as many melodic variations as possible with 4-note pattern, including various pentatonic scale notes; cue (teacher gives a starting note) & respond game, etc.
  • Sing and Play game – play back (RH) the melody you just sang over 2-chord harmony (LH)
  • Exploring various pentatonic scales – start from any note of the scales
  • Interval singing – P4, P5, M2 m2, etc.
  • Aural trainingtapping on given beat(s) or upbeat of given beat; echo singing; improvise answering phrase to a given phrase; quick study (improvise a continuing phrase to a phrase learned by ear or at sight) with a single hand or both


Since I was a college student my interest in jazz has always been there in the background. I went through countless books on how to learn to improvise. So, I had a very basic knowledge of jazz harmony, including various types of scales often used in jazz idiom, but putting them into practice was a tricky part, especially when I had to step out of my comfort zone. Having been so used to read the notes put in front of me, when I see the suggested notes in the improvisation section, I can’t help playing those notes in the written order – that’s hardly an improvisation! Having attended Tim Richard’s jazz piano course for teachers was a great help in a sense that he knew what our habits are as classically trained pianists and taught us how to get out of it and what’s more is that he also taught us how to pass it onto our students.

As you would agree, it usually takes years of training to master something that requires intricate skills. The same goes for jazz piano playing/improvisation. So, how can we, classically trained pianists, possibly teach jazz improvisation to our students after having attended just a 3-day course? If your students feel serious about becoming a professional jazz pianist, then it goes without saying that they should be sent to study with professional jazz pianists to be trained as one. But for most piano learners, jazz is just one form of styles of music that provides relief and pleasure. When you look around the current music scene you hear full of styles that are influenced by jazz music in some form or the other, whether it’s pop, rock, or even some of classical music! I’m sure that’s the reason why many piano learners are drawn to play jazzy pieces because they find it accessible and they can easily relate to it.

Now getting back to the question I posed. Can a 3-day course prepare teachers to be able to teach jazz improvisation? As long as teachers posses genuine interests in the subject and prepare to dedicate some time to extend their knowledge on the subject, I think it’s possible. In this jazz course for teachers, we had a frame work within which we could focus on, using ABRSM jazz piano grade exam pieces from Grade 1 to 5 (mainly 1 – 3). The pieces are quite simple but it allows you to experiment with it based on the information that each piece presents, in terms of form, harmony, scales, tonality, etc. Just to be able to give students opportunity to ‘look into’ the piece of music from a different angle in such way, I think it’s worth spending some time to learn how to improvise and pass the acquired knowledge to their students however basic it can be. This may open the door to a new venture for your students. You’ll never know where it’ll lead but I’m sure your students will have joyous time while learning how to improvise. I always feel that if you can teach someone something you’ve learned, and that person understands it too, your understanding is proven to be well enough. In that sense, teacher and student are learning new skills together.

Even if you’re not preparing for the jazz exam, there can be ways to incorporate the elements of jazz improvisation into your regular lesson curriculum. For example if your student is currently learning a jazzy solo piece, you could add an improvisation section to it so that s/he gets a glimpse of the essence of jazz music – freedom to create your own melody within a certain frame. Or you could try one easy jazz piece from the ABRSM Jazz Piano Pieces books. You could modify the scales that your student already know to fit within the harmonic structure of the piece. A little freedom from written notations can be very liberating and boost students’ confidence in piano playing and also help to them to get a grip of music theory in a practical way as well as improving their rhythmic sense, including the coordination skills required for that.

Regarding the level of skills required for playing jazz piano, for those who are about grade 2 to 4 standard, a good place to start is probably jazz grade 1 to 2. For those who are about grade 5-8 standard may try jazz grade 3 to 5. Playing the written part of the piece may be relatively easy but the improvisation section will get more challenging above jazz grade 3 because you have to coordinate your improvisation with rhythmic harmony in the left hand.

Now, for the teachers whose immediate intention to use jazz improvisation in their piano lessons is not on their card just yet, the question would be, ‘How can this experience be useful to your conventional piano lessons?’ If it doesn’t fit within the repertoire you teach, it doesn’t have to be in a form of jazz improvisation. Perhaps, applying similar exploring methods to get around the problems that students are facing (technically, aurally, etc.)? For examples, if you student feel stuck on a particular spot in the music which doesn’t seem to improve. You could try an improvisation game in a piano duet style, using the notes from the problematic passage; your student copies what you plays; when the student gets a hang of it, s/he now creates an answering phrase using the same selection of notes; make sure to explore as many variations as possible here. Then, found out how the written notes in the problematic spot in the music are formed, the student may have played it or similar one in his/her improvisation. Looking at the same thing from a different angle often helps you overcome the stubborn problem.

I was very glad that I attended this course, although I was slightly apprehensive because I knew I had to go outside my comfort zone to learn something unfamiliar. It was the most intensive 3-day learning course I’ve had for a very long time. Preparing one piece each day with improvisation had us go straight to the practice rooms whenever possible, reviewing over what we’ve learned from the previous sessions. I also met likely-minded passionate teachers who wish to bring a fresh approach into their lessons exploring jazz music. Needless to say, accommodation and full board service were spot on at the Benslow. Practice rooms were always available; you can practise until 11pm. If early in the morning, you can choose a digital piano with a headphone on, which was strangely my preferred way of practising when it comes to working on improvisation; something about using other than piano tones helps me to improvise better; and also it was very private!

I hope this post provided some ideas as to what to expect in the Tim Richards jazz course for piano teachers at the Benslow Music and how you can make use of it even if your intention doesn’t include entering your students for the ABRSM jazz piano exams, and those teachers who feel a little apprehensive about attending such course as this are encouraged to try it out themselves and learn a few ideas to incorporate some elements of jazz improvisation into their piano lesson curriculum.

Stay creative!

It’s always a challenge for me to keep myself inspired during the period between when I start learning new pieces and when I’m ready to perform for the concert. Hence, selecting music in which I can maintain that focus is a very important process for me.

Last year, I came across with such music during a short conversation with a British composer, Graham Lynch. I’m very so glad that he guided me to his Beyond the River God. After a year or so, I’m still very much intrigued by this set of 5 short pieces originally written for harpsichord, offering memorable melodies encased in modal harmonies, seasoned with counterpoint and hemiloa at times, yet giving the performers such freedom to breathe between the notes. The more I got inside the music, the more I discovered its hidden charms.

The concert performance of the work was a success but I wasn’t perfectly happy with the audio result, so I decided to record the entire suite again, this time at home. I whole-heartedly enjoyed playing it, and hopefully will perform it again at the public venues in the future.  Thanks you, Graham for such beautiful music.

Over the past years in trying to record piano at home, I’ve come to realise that although improving the room acoustics, the choice of microphones and their positioning are important factors but the most important element for successful piano recording is to have the piano serviced by a fine piano technician and keep its mechanical and tonal condition sound so that the tone can be controlled to the finest details. My piano has been fixed and serviced recently by a piano technician whom I’m very happy with. My Swedish mics seem to love this renewed piano tone as well.

Rondeau 1, with energy
from Beyond the River God
written by Graham Lynch,
performed by Yukie Smith

Recording settings:
-Piano lid fully open
-Digital recorder: Tascam DR-680
-Microphone: Line Audio CM3 (cardioid pair in A/B configuration)
-Mic position: c. 110cm off the piano pointing towards near where the curve ends
-Mic height: c.146cm
-Audio sample rate: 24bit, 48.8kHz (no EQ or reverb added)

My piano room layout and mics position:

my piano room & mic setting
Handmade acoustic panels:
6 acoustic foams are spray-glued onto a foam board, which I bought from a craft shop.
1 acoustic panel

2 pieces of balsa wood (one at the top and the other at the bottom) are glued onto the board using Araldite.

The panel is fixed on the wall using 3M Damage-Free Hanging hooks (holds up to 225g).
3M damage-free handing 225g

These hook requires no drilling on the wall.  Although the weight of each panel is about 1kg, I chose 225g.  It’s still holding the panel up after over a year.
3 acoustic panels-small

If you’re interested in reading the discussion on the gearslutz forum regarding how to improve piano recording at home, please follow the link below:


My conclusion so far in my efforts in improving the room acoustics, if I need to record an album one day, I shall go to a professional recording studio.

Having said that, I’m very happy with my current audio result for what I’m using it for. I shall enjoy some more home recording for the new projects I have in mind.

NES concert 10OCT15-small

Unusually, I’ll be performing a piano solo this time. Beyond the River God written by Graham Lynch for the harpsichordist Assi Karttunen, premiered last year in Finland.  As the composer states “Beyond the River God is the work that comes closest to having a dialogue with the French clavecinists of the 18th century, especially François Couperin”, it’s a very atmospheric suite, full of ethereal melodies with curious harmonies and rhythmic play.  It certainly tickles my intellectual curiosity.

The suite consists of 5 pieces:

I. Rondeau, with energy
II. Couplet 1, Pastoral
III. Rondeau 2
IV. Couplet 2
V. Rondeau 3

When I was given the written score by the composer, I smiled…  There’re no dynamic markings!  Just the general tempo and phrase markings.  It’s like I was given a beautiful drawing in which I get to colour the way I feel I’d like to.  I feel very priviledged to be given such freedom and it’s been such an experience that I’d certainly love to do again if the chance arises.

I look forward to performing this particular suite at the concert soon, for the first time on piano.

There’s a beautiful recording by Assi Karttunen on harpsichord, recently released.

In piano playing, you almost always use both hands.  Sometimes it’s hard work getting both hands coordinated.  To improve your piano playing, it’s crucial that you develop well-balanced coordination between your eye (visual), ear (aural), thinking brain (mind) and arm/hand/finger (physical).  Depending on the type of problems you are likely to face in piano playing, you may need to focus on a particular aspect of coordination to solve them.  Here are some examples to show what coordination is about in relation to piano playing.

Mental and physical and visual coordination
Try drawing a triangle in the air with your right hand and a square with your left.  In doing so, you’re working on mental, visual and physical coordination; your mind (or thinking brain) is telling each hand what to do and your eyes guide your hands to follow imaginary shapes in the air; your hands are acting upon it.  The same goes for your finger work on the piano.  When you learn something new or find a problematic passage in the music, you need to play in slow motion so that your thinking (commanding) brain can tell your fingers what to do (where to go, how to play, etc.) before your fingers do the work.  After enough repetitive practice, your finger muscles eventually ‘memorise’ the repeated sequence of movements, and you get to the point where your fingers do the work automatically.  It could be a long process for some but it will eventually come together.

It’s often true that visual input can be distractive.  So, when you face a problem coordinating between the  hands in playing a certain passage, try playing it with your eyes closed.  You’re now working on mental and physical coordination.

Another visual input that can be distractive at times is the notation in the score.  When you find it tricky to play a certain passage, try looking away from the notation and look at your hands to see how the notes are working between the hands, and then close your eyes to improve your mental and physical coordination.  When you fix a problematic passage by gaining coordination in this way, looking at the notation again won’t be so distractive; at this point, the notation becomes more of a guide.

Aural and mental coordination
Imagine yourself standing beside two groups of people talking about two different subjects and trying to understand what both groups are saying at the same time.  You certainly need more attentive listening with a focused mind than just casual listening.   When you play a piece of music where each hand has to follow an individual melody line of equal importance, your aural and mental coordination should be working at their best so that you can focus on getting the finger work sorted!  How can you gain such coordination?  Using your own voice to help is one method.  You can always hear yourself speaking because your intention to speak and to be heard is there.  Learn to sing or hum one melody line (whichever is the easier one to sing; left or right hand part) and memorise it.  Now, as you sing or hum the memorised melody line,  play the other line at the same time.  It may take a few attempts but if you manage to follow two lines that way, your ear is now accepting both melody lines at the same time.  Your finger work should be much improved from this point.  Sometimes lack of coordination results from lack of attentive listening.

Visual and physical coordination
The easiest way to understand what it means is to try the following broken chord exercises:

1. Using one finger (say, the 2nd), play a C major chord in a broken form for four octaves non-stop, both ascending and descending (C-E-G, C-E-G….. | G-E-C, G-E-C…..).  Make sure your eyes find the next position before your finger does, so that your finger always knows where to go in advance.  It’s often easier to follow a chord pattern on the piano when you see a group of black keys as a sign post.  For example, C and E are located around the two black keys.

2. Now, back track one note after each three-note pattern cycle (C-E-G, E-G-C, G-C-E…..), again for four octaves non-stop, both ascending and descending.  Make sure you let your eye guide where your fingers need to be going.

You may find that descending is slightly more challenging than ascending.  Start at a very slow speed until you can play the exercise(s) continuously without hesitation.  When you become comfortable with it, that proves your visual and physical coordination is now working successfully in harmony.

Visual and mental coordination
This doesn’t involve physical or aural coordination at all, which means you play the music without playing any instrument.  What sort of coordination skill is this?  It’s a skill to be able to hear the tune in your head (mind) as you read the written notation (visual).  Try the following well-known folk tunes.  Can you guess the title of each tune without playing them on an instrument?

geuss the title-visual-aural-mental coordination
If you managed to guess either title correctly without playing any instrument, you already have the foundation for this coordination to be developed further.  This coordination skill also plays a big part in improving your sight-reading; you start interpreting the notes as musical sound rather than just the dots being endlessly laid out.  This skill can be gradually developed by the regular singing of short exercise tunes from the written notation (solfège) as well as by learning and playing as much written music in various styles as possible.  So that you build a large vocabulary of sound associated with melodic shapes.  The larger sound vocabulary and the more patterns you can refer to in your head, the quicker you can predict how the music goes when you read the notation.

For piano teachers who choose not to use piano tutor books for the absolute beginners, it can be a challenge to find suitable piano books that can be linked to how they introduce notation to the students and also when to introduce such books.

In the natural order of learning how to play the piano or any instrument for that matter, playing should always come first because that’s how the learners develop the skill to listen actively to the sound they make with their finger work. When the early learners are focusing on reading, the sound often escapes their ear so they tend to develop symptom of not really hearing what they’re playing. When students acquires basic listening skill to their own playing, they also build sound vocabulary that can be a great contribution towards developing healthy reading skill later on.

During the period of cultivating aural and playing skills, teachers can introduce many useful simple songs by rote. Sometimes, it may help to draw a pictorial guide to help students understand, organise and internalise each song; be it finger numbers (but note notes attached to them!), melodic shapes, rhythmic notation, words & stories, even Morse Code to help with some tricky rhythmic patterns!, etc. This period is also a crucial stage where they can develop steady pulse in their playing while they don’t need to worry about reading notation.

Notation can be introduced gradually, separately from piano playing in the early stage. Always include lots of writing exercises, including melodic pattern recognition, rather than reading the notes off the paper. Writing always activate and engage learners’ brains much better. You may find that delaying reading notation could cause problems later on. It’s only natural that their playing is far ahead than what they can read to play but reading will eventually catch up. So, during this period where students learn songs by rote and learning to read notation separately, teachers can gently introduce the piano books that are very easy to read but include lots of notes that they’re learning to read on the side and also that are full of patterns! Pattern search in the music is like creating a musical map. The learners can organise how and where to start learning each piece of music, so that they feel learning a new song is less a daunting task.  Some young children may need to start with the notated version of some of the simply written songs they’ve already learned (see if they can recognise the songs they can already play, but this time by reading it!).

Here’re some of my favourite piano books so far that I introduce to my students when they can read 5 notes in the right hand, a couple of notes in the left hand, and also can recognise melodic patterns (stepwise/skipwise-up/down in relation to the direction on the keyboard) in the music and can play several songs well. Some books are suitable for little children; some are suited for 10 years old and over & adults:

Melody Bober
Grand Piano Solos, Book One

Christopher Norton
American Pop Piano, Primer
Microjazz for Beginners

Vogt & Bates
Piano Explorer, 1A

William Gillock
Accent on Solo, Book One

Nancy Faber & Randall Faber
PreTime Piano, Jazz & Blues, Primer Level

Diane Hidy
Attention Grabber, Book One

Sharon Aaronson
Christmas on the Jazzy Side

For more ambitious players:

Janet Vogt & Leon Bates
Piano Explorer, 1B

Denis Alexander, Gayle Kowalchyk, E.L. Lancaster, Vicotria McArthur & Martha Mier
Alfred’s Premier Piano Course, Lesson 2B

Pam Wedgwood
Really Easy Jazzin’ About

Elissa Milne
Little Peppers, Very Easy

Nancy Faber & Randall Faber
PlayTime Piano, Popular, Level One
PlayTime Piano, Kid’s Songs, Level One

Melody Bober
Grand Piano Duets, Book Two

James Bastien
Popular Christmas Songs, Level One

There’re always more new books appearing in the market. I shall add more to the above list when ready. Happy music hunting!

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!


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