I have several piano students who are constantly driven by their creative forces. They just can’t satisfy their musical appetite by just learning what’s written on the paper. Their sound system in their brain is linked to the ocean of sound they’ve been absorbing on a daily basis listening to the music they enjoy. Soon, they start experimenting with the notes they’ve just learned, saying that sounds like this part of this and that tune.

For a while, I’ve been giving a thought about how I can go about using this creative energy to get them into the world of composing and arranging. I thought I’d share some experiments I’ve done with my students.

Case 1 (elementary):
One of the easiest tunes with which my 7 years old student had a creative experiment was called Slimy and Smooth. It’s from Note Reading Made Fun Book 1 written by Julia and Kevin Olson. All of the pieces in the book are 8-bar long and arranged for piano duet. I always find that the creative process begins with messing about with things put in front of you. This creative experiment was triggered by my student playing the notes in a wrong order and discovering that it actually sounds nice! So, here it goes. Simple melody using 5 notes, using repetition and sequence mixed with variation:

Case 2 (mid elementary):
One day, I introduced a little tune based on a simple rhythm to my 9 year old student to learn it by ear (she kindly gave this tune a title, Wandering Melody):

Once she learned the right hand, I introduced a simple left hand pattern to sing along the right hand melody that she’s just learned. When she heard this simple descending accompaniment creating changing harmonies, she got hooked:

Learning both hands took a little getting used to but she persisted until she got it right.

“Now, it’s time to have fun with it”, I said. “You’re going to creating your own version of right hand melody to the same left hand accompaniment”.

Off she went spending a lot of time having fun with it for a week. Out of many versions she created, she showed me the one that she really liked with a big smile on her face. She went beyond what I asked her to do – instead of changing the right hand melody, she changed the left hand pattern. She found a minor version using a chromatic scale. But then she said, “The ending doesn’t sound like an ending… I don’t know what to do…”, so I helped her out a bit to bring back a bit of original idea into her version of the tune for a happy ending. Here’s the final version:

This idea led me thinking that I should think about start using the pieces that are based on a repetitive chord progression so that my students can experiment with it and create their own version of the pieces they’ve learned.

Case 3 (late elementary):
I first tested this idea with my 8 year old student who is constantly creating his own piano tunes. The piece I’ve chosen for this experiment (considering his taste for pop music) is Knight’s Castle (Alte Ritterburg) written by Oxana Krut (Ukuranian composer) based on a repetitive chord progression.  Melodies are mostly made of sequences, so it’s easy to learn purely by ear.  He’s learned the piece almost instantly.  So, I gave him a challenge to create his version of melodies without changing the left hand accompaniment.  He gave me a big smile and he sent me a recording the next day:

Case 4 (late elementary):
This idea can be applied to students who are not normally exposed to creative music making. Here’s one of my teenage students who had his first experience of creating a melody variation using the same piece as above, Knight’s Castle by Oxana Krut.

As he creates his own melody, he started transcribing the note so that he won’t forget:

Here’s the final version:

Here’s what he wrote to me about the experience:

Playing my own version of the piece gave me a special kind of pleasure.     Because I’d contributed to what was already a lovely piece of music and gave it a new quality that was uniquely mine and reflected what I found most beautiful in it.

Case 5 (late elementary – early intermediate):
I saw another opportunity to use a melody variation idea when one of my adult students were getting ready to embark on some elaborate rhythmic patterns in 3/8 and 6/8. Based on No.52 from Beyer’s Elementary Method op.101, I gave him a modernised version of the piece in D minor.

Modified version of Beyer’s No.52:

Then I introduced two new rhythmic patterns that frequently appears in 3/8 and 6/8. After he’s learned the above piece, I gave him a challenge to create a melody variation using these rhythms shown as below:

My student kindly recorded the result for me:

A little modal twist at the end was a sweet surprise!

Case 6 (early intermediate):
Here’s another piece by Oxana Krut, In the Boat, which I’m experimenting with one of my 9 years old students to teach about phrases to create a musical sentence. During the Skype lesson the other day, we’ve managed to improvise 4-bar musical conversation based on the chord progression from the piece:

Case 7 (early intermediate):
Little pieces by Oxana Krut offer such freedom and flexibility with full of useful composing tools so that the players can be easily challenged to experiment to create their own version of the pieces. Based on my findings, I’ve also tested on a couple of adult students of mine (late elementary to early intermediate levels) – I’m discovering that the minor keys seem to offer more choices in note selection for the learners. Perhaps maybe, the minor keys have more diatonic chords than major keys, hence more colours and moods you can play with:

Autumn Song (Herbstlied)
In this recording, my adult student is mixing his melody variation with the original.  Dotted rhythm was a good challenge he gave himself here (the recording shows the second half of the piece):

Nostalgia
Another adult student of mine recorded one for me.  She has a good sense of melodic shape using sequences throughout the piece:

By going through such creative process as this, students are discovering to “see” and “understand” the written pieces from the composer’s point of view. This is naturally contributing towards more sympathetic approach in musical shaping when they learn new written pieces. My students are definitely enjoying the opportunity to tap into their creative drive that they didn’t know they had. Some of my adult students comments are:

I didn’t think I would like it initially but I really enjoyed this exercise, and would like to explore composing a little more…

I’m enjoying so much doing this, I’m so free!

___________________________________________________
The pieces used here are from the books below:

Note Reading Made Fun Book 1 by Julia and Kevin Olson

Children’s Songs for Piano –
for developing hand coordination

(extended edition) by Yukie Smith

Elementary Method for the Piano, op101 by Ferdinand Beyer

Piano Feelings Easy 1 by Oxana Krut
Piano Feelings Easy 2
by Oxana Krut
Piano Solo – Tale of a Knight
by Oxana Krut
Piano Solo – Four Seasons
by Oxana Krut

Happy creating!

One of my teenage students has been playing the piano since he was 9 years old but had only been interested in playing and composing pop songs until May last year when he started to take GCSE music study at school more seriously.  And he’s decided to get better at music theory and he’d like to achieve grade 8 in piano.  After a serious talk about what he’s expected in the piano grade exams, we came up with a sensible plan, in which he’d aim for grade 5 offered by the Trinity exam board (rather than ABRSM) to start with. That way he has freer choices in music selection and he can take ‘musical knowledge’ option instead of ‘sight reading’ for the supporting tests, which would allow him to spend some time in learning how to sight-read efficiently for the next grade up (either Trinity or ABRSM).  Now, here’re the various challenges he’s been facing and tackling so far:

The first challenge – play as written!
As a pop music player, he’d been free to play any arrangement he liked and to change here and there as he liked. The first thing that I had to have him understand in preparing for the grade exam was this is absolutely NOT something that he’s allowed to do in the exam, he has to play the notes as written! That’s a tough discipline for someone who has had a freedom to choose his own notes and patterns to play. So, I’ve given him a challenge of learning two short pieces of early intermediate level pieces as written, neither classical nor pop, but jazz. And I said to him, if he managed to learn these two pieces, then we’d officially start preparing for the grade 5 pieces. So, he learned Down Home Funk by Tim Richards and Swing Deco from a collection of my compositions.  A slow start but he’s managed to keep going and pulled it off eventually.

Whilst he was studying the above two pieces, we also started working on music theory (not GCSE music theory but ABRSM music theory), using Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Book 1-3  as an gentle introduction to music theory (the reason for choosing this series being that they include aural training programmes and also my student also plays the drum, so he’s used to American terms when it comes to note values and metres).  After completing the books, we did some free theory test papers available on the ABRSM website to introduce him to the ABRSM music theory test form, with the use of First Steps in Music Theory, Grades 1 to 5 by Eric Taylor as a reference when necessary.  We’re now going through Samantha Coates’ How to Blitz! ABRSM Theory Grade 5, preparing for the grade 5 theory exam.

The second challenge – reading
During the first challenge period, we’ve also started working on improving his reading skill as part of sight-reading practice.  As he was a very reluctant reader when he was into pop song playing (a strong ‘by ear’ player though), his note reading skill had been significantly lagged behind.  But once he realised that he’d need to develop a proper note reading skill for the exam, he’s started to show his willingness to learn pieces even when they’re not his cup of tea.  For this particular training, we’re using Louis Köhler’s Practical Piano Method for the Pianoforte, op.249 – similar to Beyer’s and Czerny’s equivalent.  It’s a great material for teaching pattern learning and basic harmony.  And it also includes some finger exercises that encourage pattern reading.  We’re at No.28 currently, he’s showing a gradual improvement in grasping figurations and is getting less reluctant to learning pieces from notation.

Finally, learning the Trinity Grade 5 pieces…
Now Let’s Handle by Michael Proksch
After having deconstructed the piece to find out how the music is put together (melody line, pedal point, bass line and chord over a repetitive chord progression), he’s managed to learn the notes in a week. In the second week of learning Now Let’s Handel he’s discovered the fun way of playing in time and showed it to me:

[Recorded during the Skype lesson.]

We’re now in the process of shaping it up to make it more musical with complimentary phrasings.

Incidentally, using a drum beat metronome is one of my favourite practise methods when I want the timing to be absolutely precise in rhythmic pieces. Quite challenging because it’s not just the downbeat click I’d need to match up but it gives me an immense satisfaction when it’s absolutely in time on every subdivided beats.

Blues for Beth by Mike Cornick
He’s a strong ‘by ear’ player as I mentioned before. Hence, his rhythmic precision sometimes suffers, hence reading dotted rhythms was proven to be tricky. But since he started drum study, his perception of a steady beat seems to have improved and his ability to follow the metronomic beat seems to have become easier, hence he can now practise with a metronome (before, he couldn’t). As a practice strategy, he’s learned only the right hand melody notes first without embellishment (grace/crush note & top harmony) to get a good sense of linear movement, in time with a metronome. Adding embellishment notes and other chord notes later is much simpler than learning all the notes together from the start. The left hand has less notes than the right hand but rhythmically is more challenging because of so much space created by the rests between the patterns, hence a metronome practice was absolutely necessary!

Once he got a sense of how the music should feel like, he managed to put the hands together in the following week. Now, we’re working on various articulations to achieve a stylish performance of the piece.

Circus Theme by Fishel Pustilnik
This is the most challenging piece for someone who has never played big leaps in the left hand. So, rather than going straight into learning it, I thought it’d be useful for him to try some improvisation exercise using a couple of triads in the left hand playing 2 octave leaps – more than what Circus Theme asks you to do! – to help him acquire technique/coordination for playing stride bass in the left hand. For the right hand improvisation, it’s good to start with a two or three-note motif chosen from a 5-notes scale, then repeat the motif with variations (either rhythmically or melodically) inserting some rests in between, so he won’t cram too many notes on one phrase. This way, he can focus on keeping the rhythm within a set metre and also he can focus on the left hand movement. Here’s what he’s achieved:

[Recorded during the Skype lesson.]

As you can see, he applied a concept of borrowed chord in his improvisation too, similar to what appears in Circus Theme (Neaopolitan 6 chord, B flat major chord). A great effort, I say!

Before getting back to learning Circus Theme, I gave him one extra challenge; to improvise using the right hand rhythms from the piece, and with a stride bass as written.  He said it was easy to learn the left hand patterns because it had smaller leap than the one he was practising in his improvisation exercise.

There’re still lots of things to do to prepare leading up to the piano exam but I think he’s on the right track and I could see his positive attitude growing stronger and stronger, which is definitely contributing to his rapid progress.  It’s very uplifting to see this happening knowing that he’s once quit his piano for a while when he went through a difficult time.  I hope to add more progress reports in the coming months.

Happy reaching for the goal!

—update—

Due to Covid-19, music exams went online.  As he was learning all the pieces at the steady pace, I’ve decided that he’d be ready to go for it this summer since he won’t have to prepare for other supporting tests.  I’d rather he’ll move on learning new skills through new pieces over the summer holiday than get stuck with the same pieces longer than necessary.  It turned that it was a good decision to do so.  He’s managed to increase his focus for the following few weeks and submitted the video recording in the early August this year.  He’s just learned that he’s passed his first ever grade exam with distinction!  Here’s a snipet of his final results:

He’s now learning Chopin’s Waltz in A minor for a leisure and working on improvisation skill to give this piece a gypsy jazz twist 🙂 He’d decided he’d like to improve his playing skill without exam for a while now.

—update 2—

He just showed me his discovery during out Skype session yesterday (22OCT20). He sang to me Gloria Gayor I’ll Survive to his playing Now Let’s Handel! The composer said “I’m happy to hear this because that’s exactly what I want to achieve with my compositions. Creative use of music.” 🙂


Onward and upward!

One of my teenage students has been playing the piano since he was 9 years old but had only been interested in playing and composing pop songs until May last year when he started to take GCSE music study at school more seriously.  And he’s decided to get better at music theory and he’d like to achieve grade 8 in piano.  After a serious talk about what he’s expected in the piano grade exams, we came up with a sensible plan, in which he’d aim for grade 5 offered by the Trinity exam board (rather than ABRSM) to start with. That way he has freer choices in music selection and he can take ‘musical knowledge’ option instead of ‘sight reading’ for the supporting tests, which would allow him to spend some time in learning how to sight-read efficiently for the next grade up (either Trinity or ABRSM).  Now, here’re the various challenges he’s been facing and tackling so far:

The first challenge – play as written!
As a pop music player, he’d been free to play any arrangement he liked and to change here and there as he liked. The first thing that I had to have him understand in preparing for the grade exam was this is absolutely NOT something that he’s allowed to do in the exam, he has to play the notes as written! That’s a tough discipline for someone who has had a freedom to choose his own notes and patterns to play. So, I’ve given him a challenge of learning two short pieces of early intermediate level pieces as written, neither classical nor pop, but jazz. And I said to him, if he managed to learn these two pieces, then we’d officially start preparing for the grade 5 pieces. So, he learned Down Home Funk by Tim Richards and Swing Deco from a collection of my compositions.  A slow start but he’s managed to keep going and pulled it off eventually.

Whilst he was studying the above two pieces, we also started working on music theory (not GCSE music theory but ABRSM music theory), using Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Book 1-3  as an gentle introduction to music theory (the reason for choosing this series being that they include aural training programmes and also my student also plays the drum, so he’s used to American terms when it comes to note values and metres).  After completing the books, we did some free theory test papers available on the ABRSM website to introduce him to the ABRSM music theory test form, with the use of First Steps in Music Theory, Grades 1 to 5 by Eric Taylor as a reference when necessary.  We’re now going through Samantha Coates’ How to Blitz! ABRSM Theory Grade 5, preparing for the grade 5 theory exam.

The second challenge – reading
During the first challenge period, we’ve also started working on improving his reading skill as part of sight-reading practice.  As he was a very reluctant reader when he was into pop song playing (a strong ‘by ear’ player though), his note reading skill had been significantly lagged behind.  But once he realised that he’d need to develop a proper note reading skill for the exam, he’s started to show his willingness to learn pieces even when they’re not his cup of tea.  For this particular training, we’re using Louis Köhler’s Practical Piano Method for the Pianoforte, op.249 – similar to Beyer’s and Czerny’s equivalent.  It’s a great material for teaching pattern learning and basic harmony.  And it also includes some finger exercises that encourage pattern reading.  We’re at No.28 currently, he’s showing a gradual improvement in grasping figurations and is getting less reluctant to learning pieces from notation.

Finally, learning the Trinity Grade 5 pieces…
Now Let’s Handle by Michael Proksch
After having deconstructed the piece to find out how the music is put together (melody line, pedal point, bass line and chord over a repetitive chord progression), he’s managed to learn the notes in a week. In the second week of learning Now Let’s Handel he’s discovered the fun way of playing in time and showed it to me:


[Recorded during the Skype lesson.]

We’re now in the process of shaping it up to make it more musical with complimentary phrasings.

Incidentally, using a drum beat metronome is one of my favourite practise methods when I want the timing to be absolutely precise in rhythmic pieces. Quite challenging because it’s not just the downbeat click I’d need to match up but it gives me an immense satisfaction when it’s absolutely in time on every subdivided beats.

Blues for Beth by Mike Cornick
He’s a strong ‘by ear’ player as I mentioned before. Hence, his rhythmic precision sometimes suffers, hence reading dotted rhythms was proven to be tricky. But since he started drum study, his perception of a steady beat seems to have improved and his ability to follow the metronomic beat seems to have become easier, hence he can now practise with a metronome (before, he couldn’t). As a practice strategy, he’s learned only the right hand melody notes first without embellishment (grace/crush note & top harmony) to get a good sense of linear movement, in time with a metronome. Adding embellishment notes and other chord notes later is much simpler than learning all the notes together from the start. The left hand has less notes than the right hand but rhythmically is more challenging because of so much space created by the rests between the patterns, hence a metronome practice was absolutely necessary!

Once he got a sense of how the music should feel like, he managed to put the hands together in the following week. Now, we’re working on various articulations to achieve a stylish performance of the piece.

Circus Theme by Fishel Pustilnik
This is the most challenging piece for someone who has never played big leaps in the left hand. So, rather than going straight into learning it, I thought it’d be useful for him to try some improvisation exercise using a couple of triads in the left hand playing 2 octave leaps – more than what Circus Theme asks you to do! – to help him acquire technique/coordination for playing stride bass in the left hand. For the right hand improvisation, it’s good to start with a two or three-note motif chosen from a 5-notes scale, then repeat the motif with variations (either rhythmically or melodically) inserting some rests in between, so he won’t cram too many notes on one phrase. This way, he can focus on keeping the rhythm within a set metre and also he can focus on the left hand movement. Here’s what he’s achieved:


[Recorded during the Skype lesson.]

As you can see, he applied a concept of borrowed chord in his improvisation too, similar to what appears in Circus Theme (Neaopolitan 6 chord, B flat major chord). A great effort, I say!

Before getting back to learning Circus Theme, I gave him one extra challenge; to improvise using the right hand rhythms from the piece, and with a stride bass as written.  He said it was easy to learn the left hand patterns because it had smaller leap than the one he was practising in his improvisation exercise.

There’re still lots of things to do to prepare leading up to the piano exam but I think he’s on the right track and I could see his positive attitude growing stronger and stronger, which is definitely contributing to his rapid progress.  It’s very uplifting to see this happening knowing that he’s once quit his piano for a while when he went through a difficult time.  I hope to add more progress reports in the coming months.

Happy reaching for the goal!

—update—

Due to Covid-19, music exams went online.  As he was learning all the pieces at the steady pace, I’ve decided that he’d be ready to go for it this summer since he won’t have to prepare for other supporting tests.  I’d rather he’ll move on learning new skills through new pieces over the summer holiday than get stuck with the same pieces longer than necessary.  It turned that it was a good decision to do so.  He’s managed to increase his focus for the following few weeks and submitted the video recording in the early August this year.  He’s just learned that he’s passed his first ever grade exam with distinction! 

Here’s a snipet of his final results:

He’s now learning Chopin’s Waltz in A minor for a leisure and working on improvisation skill to give this piece a gypsy jazz twist 🙂 He’d decided he’d like to improve his playing skill without exam for a while now.

—update 2—

He just showed me his discovery during out Skype session yesterday (22OCT20). He sang to me Gloria Gayor I’ll Survive to his playing Now Let’s Handel! The composer said “I’m happy to hear this because that’s exactly what I want to achieve with my compositions. Creative use of music.” 🙂

Onward and upward!

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!

 

—update—

Having witnessed the growing motivation and applied ability in my pupils who have been going through the above mentioned songs, I’ve decide to publish an extended edition (printed book) with 52 songs in total.  The book includes more traditional songs and some classical pieces. I also included some of my original pieces that are introduced as a tool for improvisation and composition. This ideas was inspired by observing how my pupils started experimenting with previously learned harmonic tools from the songs to create something of their own – harmonising the melody they’ve picked up by ear, creating a melody with LH ostinato, etc.

The extended edition is available from here.

 

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_8

She 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!