This week has been the busiest I’ve felt in months but it came with rewards. On Tuesday was the annual AGE UK charity concert in Cambridge organised by Rex Freeman, who carries such passion in music making and also in giving opportunities to young musicians to be engaged with the sympathetic audiences and raising funds for the charity. It’s always a pleasure to be able to be involved in such efforts. This year, I accompanied one of the young violinists I’ve been playing with for a few years now. We had a very good programme; Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.7, 1st mvt, Mozart’s Adagio in E and Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert. I’ve never done the Beethoven’s 7th sonata before but I was quickly hooked by what it has to offer. Full of well-balanced interactions between the violin and piano. I’d definitely love to learn the rest of it and hopefully have a chance to perform in full in the future. How I love Mozart’s Adagio, I can’t describe in words. It’s one of those pieces which I feel very much affectionate to. The challenge lies for the pianist to provide a quasi-orchestra tonal texture which is very much needed for the sweetest melodies of the violin to come alive. With the Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert, it was a revisiting experience for me. I once played it with my twin sister when we were high school students. I remember I struggled to play those repeated chords stylistically with my limited technique back then and also to follow the violinits’ rubato playing, which is one of the essential ingredients for this piece’s charm. After 20 odd years, it was a very refreshing to perform this again with a teenage violinist.

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

What a week, it was… but totally worth it. Now, onto the next project…

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

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

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

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

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

Academia Music



The Juilliard Store

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

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

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

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

Grandma, please come back any time!

I find it very refreshing to face a challenge that puts me to the test as a piano teacher, from time to time.

One of my 8yo pupils brought a sheet of paper with the lyrics of Christina Perri’s Human written on it, and told me that she wants to learn to self-accompany on the piano singing this song for the talent show at her school in 3 weeks time.

Next week is a half term, hence no piano lesson next week, so basically she was asking me to show her how to play the piano part of a song I’ve never heard of in 30 minutes, with her late elementary piano playing skill.

My PC in my piano room just crashed the night before, so no YouTube access! Then I realised that my husband has got an iPad (the only time I found it very useful unquestionably)! So, we YouTubed it and listened to the song and created a simple harmony in an easier key for her to be able to play as she sings. Not easy for someone who’s still learning to coordinate between singing and playing different things at the same time.

I generally like Christina Perri’s songs. Her songs tend to have some elements that can be explored in an educational sense, either harmonically or rhythmically based on a clean song form; verse – pre chorus – chorus – bridge – chorus.

Here’s what we came up with during the lesson and learned in 30 minutes.

Human by Christina Perri-piano part

We set the accompanying pattern to be a simple repetition of descending parallel 10th, in two different keys (C major & A minor), with a sustaining major chord (F major) for the pre-chorus section and also to link between Chorus and Verse.

Simple idea sometimes works just as fine as more elaborate one. What we have here is just a three-note descending scale with the hands separated by the interval 10th. One note each for each hand consists partially of a major or minor chord, which defines the harmonic base for this song.

Since this piano part is very simple, it can be a good coordination exercise for those who are starting to sing and play different things at the same time. It gives you an unexplainable joy when two things fit together and out comes a pleasing harmony! This song in particular offers a very simple and repetitive melody, so coordinating with piano playing can be easily done for the very beginners too, I suspect.

All you need is a sheet of paper with a song’s lyrics in front of you and play these harmonies on the beat where it should fit as you sing. In that sense, it’s a good aural training as well. Have a try!

My pupil seemed content with this piano part without feeling tricky to coordinate with her own singing. Relief… Her singing was amazing though, it was the first time I’ve heard her sing a pop song properly. She’s been practising self-accompanying Adele’s Someone Like You for a very long time in the lessons, and she just started to get a grip on coordinating singing and playing different things at the same time. Now it’s time to put herself to the test to see if all this hard work is actually paying off or not.

It’s another music exam season at this time of the year in the UK. Final weeks are usually decided to exercise more on the aural in my piano studio. One of my pupils is working on the ABRSM Grade 2 at the moment. While we were working on the D section (describe the features of music) in the aural, she said,

‘How is this test supposed to be anything to do with helping my piano playing?’

A fair question! So, I demonstrated the reason by playing a piece of music in two different ways and asked her a few questions. In my playing, I applied the following details:

The first playing
No dynamics, no phrasing, no articulations and no tempo changes

The second playing
Clear dynamics gradations with swaying tempi and supportive articulations following what musical phrasings naturally suggest

Teacher: ‘So, which one did you enjoy listening?’

Pupil: ‘The second one’

Teacher: ‘Why?’

Pupil: ‘Because there were crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes.

Teacher: ‘Why do you think I did the crescendo and diminuendo and tempo changes?’

Pupil: ‘Because it sounds much nicer and more musical.’

Teacher: ‘Now, if you understand the music well enough and you’d like to make it sound nicer and musical, you need to know what it is you can add to make that happen. Identifying musical expression tools, such as crescendo, ritardando, non legato, legato, etc. in the music you listen to helps you to be aware what it is that makes the music sound more musical. So, you can apply it to your own playing.’

My pupil seemed to be satisfied with this answer. Having said that, the aural training such as this really shouldn’t be just a last minute preparation. It has to be in some way or the other incorporated into the regular lessons. It doesn’t have to be completely a separated exercise. You can do within the pieces that you’re working on. Posing questions such as why there’s a crescendo here, why it’s a subio p here, etc. What mood or effect do these signs are meant to emulate in executing musical expression or phrasing, etc. You can even try adding extra expression marks where appropriate to make the sound more original to you, to express how you feel about the particular piece. Guiding the pupils to have their own ideas as to how they want to play particular phrases always help them to be more aware of the importance of expression tools that they can use in playing. If you know what tools to use for particular phrases in the music, you have more freedom to express the music the way you’d like.

If the piece has a title, it’s a good item to discuss and decide how to make it sound like what the title suggests. You may think what it’s got to do with the aural? In my opinion, creating a sound image in your mind is already an act of exercising the aural. Trying to hear what you’d like to hear and trying to transfer that to your playing always deliver a focused practice and it’s very satisfying when you finally hear what you have imagined! The true ‘listening’ ear is not just about hearing what’s there but also hearing what’s going to be. So, as you can imagine, exposing your ear to a good amount of quality music is essential. With anything else, to be aware of what makes the difference is a good start to be able to improve you’ve already got.

Why not try doing the aural test for yourself next time you listen to the music in the background, in which I mean making conscious efforts to be aware of what it is that makes a particular phrase in a particular point in the music stands out to you; not only for dynamics, articulations, tempi, etc. but also for particular styles of writing, particular harmonies, etc. Classical music has more dynamics and tempos changes; hence a lot more to be aware with. But pop and jazz music can also be a useful source. Particularly for articulations and phrasing. Classical musicians can learn quite a lot from them when it comes to articulations particularly!

It’s my usual practice to write something for my piano students from time to time when I see that they need a little help to get their motivation level boosted up from different angles. When that happens, I often use a form of etude (study); short but useful with various skill-building contents. Some of my early etudes for that purpose have been published as an article in the EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association)’s own magazine, Piano Professional (issue 34), April 2014. Boogie Woogie Etudes, I call it, are a set of three studies based on Boogie Woogie style (piano-based blues) to cover a wide range of skill-building exercises from the aural, visual, kinaesthetic & intellectual point of view. Across the 7 pages in this article, I covered every detail about what they’re for, how they’re introduced and how they can be explored in the area of improvisation, etc. I hope these etudes find their usefulness in many piano teachers’ studios. The magazine can be purchased via the EPTA’s web site.

piano professional

I’ve been asked by one of my 8 years old pupils’ mother yesterday; ‘I wonder when my son starts learning to read music. He seems to be frustrated because he can’t read yet. He’s so keen and wants to do more.’ He only started piano lesson 2 months ago and he’s learned a few pieces and etudes, and during the holiday he enjoyed playing a Christmas song with a harmony in the left hand. Off to a good start, without needing to read notes to learn pieces, so he can focus on getting his ear-eye-hand coordination sorted and ready to tackle an intricate task of decoding notation later on.

Coordination doesn’t just mean moving fingers and putting the hands together. It also includes the ability to ‘hear’ what you’re playing or what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play, to ‘understand’ high and low in sound in relation to up and down of the keyboard, to be able to ‘sing or hum’ the melody line while you’re playing to maintain steady pulse, to learn to sing or hum rhythmic patterns while you’re playing so that you’re aware of rhythmic values in music, to ‘transfer’ the information that your eye took in to your finger work, etc. When pupils have gained such coordination first, they usually find their way not to get frustrated when they start learning to read notation. So, to my view, a couple pages to cover how to read notation as you find in most conventional piano tutor books seems not sufficient enough. A lot more careful and considerate preparations leading to reading notation seems necessary and more sensible. With anything else, ‘internalising’ takes time and effort.

To compare how we learn to speak and read your language, it may sound much clearer. Did you start to read a book before you speak your language? Did you start learning to read before you can write a few words? When you read, do you read letter by letter to form a word? And finally, can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

In reading music, the same can be said, I believe. If your mind is trained to recognise patterns in relation to how they sound, guessing work can kick in and you can focus on executing the sound on your instrument. For this reason, I usually introduce to my pupils an interval reading technique, rhythmic reading/writing exercises and a few landmark notes writing exercises in the early stage of learning, while they learn to acquire coordination skill to be able to ‘hear’, ‘sing’ and ‘play’, so when it comes to reading music to learn pieces, they know what to do. They take in rhythmic values properly, they can maintain steady pulse while they play, they can play in an ensemble setting, etc, and they can eventually become independent learners.

Back to this 8 years old pupil of mine, he’s already done quite a bit of preparations to start reading notation very soon. He just doesn’t realise that they’re part the course and that he’s already acquired some reading skill to read music! He’ll soon no doubt find out he can actually read music ;)


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