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!

Today, one of my 10 years old students proudly showed me what he’s picked up from one of the piano tutorials on YouTube over the weekend.  In his playing, I detected a few fragments of that popular circus theme tune for clown(s).  When I played the full melody to ask him if it was what he meant, his eye shined with joy. This piece of music is actually written as a military march and originally titled Grande Marche Chromatique.  Full of chromatic scales with quirky harmonies here and there.  For 10 years old beginner students, it’d be a hard work to be able to play it properly but his fascination with a chromatic scale will certainly help overcome a few hurdles. So, I’ve decided to arrange a very short and easy version of it. Luckily, I found out that this piece of music is now in a public domain, so I’m delighted to be able to share the sheet music with you right here.

Free sheet music download:

Entry of the Gladiator by Julius Fucík

Have fun!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers