Balancing the dynamics between the hands may be one of the most difficult techniques to teach to piano beginners. I have tried many different ways but I’ve finally found the most effective and quickest way to help my students achieve this. I thought I’d share it here.

Rather than teaching this technique in a pieces of music, I find it best to do so in a simple scale or finger exercise where students can focus on their finger control supported by flexible wrists, arms and shoulders and most importantly ‘listening ears’ with eyes open or closed as necessary.

In my teaching, I use my Finger Exercises Before Hanon, that they know well by heart. After the ‘Activities’ listed in each exercise, I give extra challenges as follows:

 

  1. RH plays legato whilst LH plays staccato: learning to execute two contrasting articulations between the hands (with the lateral movement of the wrist for RH and vertical movement of the wrist for LH)

 

  1. Swap the articulation between the hands (RH staccato & LH legato)

 

  1. Play RH forte (either legato or staccato, whichever easier first) whilst LH presses the key surfaces gently without letting any sound coming out of the piano, playing legato! (my students who thought it was impossible for the first try, managed to do so in a day or two; it’s just like learning how to ride a bicycle, once learned it’s quite easy to do!)

 

  1. Now, LH brings out a little bit of sound, say pianissimo, by pressing the key to the bottom very slowly whilst the right plays forte: learning to differentiate the speed of the key-press between the hands to control the dynamics. (Students, by then, realise that they need more muscle controls to play softly than loudly.)

 

  1. Next step up will be to play RH forte and LH piano both legato with solid sound (see my other blog post: Therapy Putty – Finger Strengthening Exercises). Soft but solid? You’d definitely need the support of your arm weight and flexible wrist movement to control. It may be helpful to start with playing RH with lift fingers with the axial rotation of the wrist, whilst LH with slightly lower wrist positioning than RH with lower lift fingers. Exaggeration often helps to work on subtle control.

 

Finally, for applying this technique to the piece of music, I often refer to this exercise when I hear my students playing with no dynamic balance between the hands by saying,

‘Do you remember the exercises we did where your RH plays forte and LH plays piano? Can you try doing that in this piece?’

They stops and thinks for a second and try it out in the music they’re playing. Then, out comes the result! Eventually, I won’t need to remind them of this technique and they use their ears to control the balance between the hands required for the piece of music they’re playing.

Happy playing!

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I thought I’d share some of my favourite Christmas piano books so far (new and old) useful in my teaching and also for my own pleasure.

Elementary:

Famous & Fun Christmas Duets” Book 2 by Carol Matz

Christmas on the Jazzy Side” (5-finger position) by Sharon Aaronson

PlayTime Piano” Christmas” Level 1 (5-finger melodies) by Faber & Faber

 

Mid elementary:

Easiest Piano Album Christmas Carols for Adults” (solo with piano duet option)

Popular Christmas Song” Level 1 by James Bastien

 

Mid elementary to late elementary:

Christmas for Two” Robert D. Vandall

 

Late elementary to Early intermediate:

Up-Grade Christmas” Grade 1-2 by Pam Wedgwood

 

Intermediate to early advanced:

Classical Piano Music for the Christmas Season, Selected Works by 20 Composers, edited by Maurice Hinson

 

Later intermediate to Advanced:

A Jazz-Inspired Christmas” by Craig Curry

Christmas Jazz for Solo Piano: 8 Spicy Settings” by Craig Curry

Advent – Piano Meditations on the Coming of the Messiah by Mark Haynes (sample listening here)

 

Would you like to share your favourite Christmas books too?

Happy seasonal playing!

I call it ‘putty exercise’ in my teaching. Inspired by Irina Mints’ videos I saw, I thought I’d try this with my pupils in various ways. The results were more than I expected. I could show them how their fingers should feel like at the point pressing the piano keys with the involvement of relaxed shoulder, arm and flexible wrist movements. Exercises also helps them fixing their collapsed fingertips. The bonus is that it’s therapeutic too! Here’s how it works:

 

Now, in transferring the exercises onto the piano keys, what I reminded my students of was to remember how their fingers felt when they went into the putty: i.e. with the help of gravity, a finger sank into the putty whilst keeping the fingertip strong with a bit of squeeze (shoulder, arm, wrist, and the rest of the fingers should be relaxed). Although the piano key is hard but imagine a finger sinking into the keybed with a bit of squeeze (without sliding the finger towards you). Also remember to go into a pressing mode (meaning the moment you add a little speed to press the key) when a finger is just above the key surface, which helps create deeper and solid piano tone. Adding speed from the higher point creates escaped energy, resulting in less power into the key, hence harsh and thin tone (and fingertip hurts too!)

After my students get a hang of this exercise, I ask them to play a pentascale on the piano at the same speed as they did with the putty, so they can ‘let the finger sink into the key’ with a bit of squeeze before releasing it with the help of raised wrist. Hand separately first, then together, in a contrary motion.

At this point, I thought I’d make this scale exercise a little bit more interesting so that students’ minds are always busy analisying and their ears are always open to listen to what they’re playing. And it’ll also contribute towards the better understanding of the concept of key and the scale structure. I call this exercise ‘tetrachord etude’. Here is how I introduce it to my students:

  • Using only 4 fingers (R:1-2-3-4/L:4-3-2-1), play a 4-note scale (whole-tone/whole-tone/half step) starting on the C, ascending and descending, singing ‘Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Mi-Re-Do’ at the same speed as applied to ‘putty exercise’.
  • Change a starting note to the next white key, the D. Find the 4-note scale consisting of the same intervals as the one started on the C: D-E-F#-G. Ascending and descending, singing ‘Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Mi-Re-Do’.
  • Finally, I have my students discover that two tetrachords of this kind equals Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, an octave scale: I play the first tetrachord, then my student continues playing another tetrachord starting from the next note (whole-step up). Then, I ask my student what we have just played. Light bulb moment for most of my students at this point 🙂

I’m expanding this tetrachord etude at the moment, hopefully I’ll be able to share in the future.

My students have taken this ‘putty exercise’ quite well, fingers feel good, stimulating the brain, strengthening the fingers at the same time, and they can do it whilst watching telly too!

I hope you’d try it too and see how it affects your piano tone.

Happy squeezing the keys!

PS: I’m using a therapy putty I bought from Amazon.co.uk:  The other colours are too stiff for this use, I find.

When learners are focusing on improving their playing, they often forget to listen, I mean, ‘attentively’ listening. One of the useful methods I repeated use in my teaching is duet playing and also play-along-to-your-singing-speed.

 

Duet playing

As soon as the other player comes in, learners tend to get quite distracted, with their ear drawn to what the other player is playing, not theirs. So, even though they’ve learned their parts well on their own, duet playing usually mess up all the stability they thought they had. Singing along your part as you play usually switch your ear back to your own playing. After spending some time in this way, learners usually regain their stability and start feeling the pulse provided by the other player. This means that they’ve now stepped up their ear-hand coordination to another level!

 

Play-along-to-your-singing-speed

When learners can’t seem to keep the pulse going whilst playing, I often ask them to sing along the melody part that they’re playing. But more often than not, playing speed turns out to be way faster than singing. But learners usually don’t hear this deviation. It’s the moment I ask them to match their playing speed exactly to their singing speed when their ears truly start to open. It takes a couple of attempts but it usually works brilliantly. Singing is always a very useful and reliable training tool to improve your playing because it helps train your ear to listen.

 

Happy listening!

For most people the easiest way to describe what level they’re at is to refer to what grade they’ve passed. But often having passed a certain grade doesn’t necessarily tell you everything about what piano skill they have.

Some may have intermediate playing skill cultivated through exploring music that they enjoy (often not classical music, in my piano studio!), hence reading skill may need a little catching up to do. Hence, in taking a music exam, they may go for a lower grade to be able to prepare everything properly. But this will help them progress further and acquire extra skills that weren’t focused before.

So, in my teaching I tend not to use grade levels to define playing skill levels that my students are at. Having said that, those who haven’t done the music exam before often ask me what grade they are at because they’re surrounded by friends who have done the grade.

To be able to give them some reference, I put together a table to describe their playing skill levels in relation to grade levels.

Early elementary Beginner
Elementary Late beginner
Late elementary Grade 1
Early intermediate Grade 2
Intermediate Grade 3-4
Late intermediate Grade 5-6
Early advanced Grade 7-8
Advanced Diploma onwards

There’re various skills coming together to be able to play music:

  • Listening skill
  • Technical skill
  • Playing (musically) skill
  • Reading skill (if your practice requires it)

Depending on each individual’s ability, how they progress is all different but the order of learning how to play music should be a natural one just like how you learned to speak your own language to communicate with people; attentive listening to the sound around you and learn to play tunes by ear/rote, followed by reading to gain further knowledge, internalising the music you play with attentive listening and analysing for better understanding and communicating, followed by writing to tell stories.

In my view, the most important skill in music learning is to cultivate the sensitive ear to listen for the details to be expressed in your playing; be it, a steady pulse, dynamic shaping, phrasing, balance between the hands (for pianists), etc. At appropriate point, reading and also technical study should be introduced. I normally introduce finger exercises as soon as learners can play a couple of tunes with ease. I’ve put together some finger exercises I give to my students before introducing Hanon exercises, which are, to my surprise, quite popular amongst all age groups. You can read more about above mentioned finger exercises here.

Technical development plays a great part in progressing as musicians to be able to reflect what they wish to express in their musical performances. Maintaining the balance between technical development and musical development isn’t always an easy one. But with a focused mind and paying attention to the details, you can achieve quite a bit!

Happy playing!

However Hanon exercises are perceived, I believe it’s still an important staple of the piano learning curriculum for developing healthy strong and dexterous fingers. But how to introduce is a tricky one especially for young players because Hanon can be quite uninspiring to maintain student’s interest and it requires a bit more stamina than playing just a few bars..

So, I came up with an introduction version of Hanon exercises with a modern twist which I use with my beginner students of all age groups. As soon as they can play a couple of tunes with ease, I introduce these exercises and to my surprise, they’re quite popular amongst my students! The reason being the way they get to use most of their fingers and the exercise patterns are easy to learn seems to work the magic, and also after a while, they experience that their fingers feel stronger and more controllable. Four of these exercises are included in my Fun with Morse Code Rhythms for piano book but due to its popularity, I’ve decided to publish them (6 exercises in total and their variants) separately as well for digital download. It’s available from my website.

Here’s the smple page of my Finger Exercises Before Hanon for piano.

Finger exercise before Hanon_sample page

Once my students move on to Hanon exercises, I try to keep this study as fun and rewarding as possible by adding extra activities to it such as:

Rhythm practice (to learn various ways of articulating notes and phrases)

Example 1: Use Morse code rhythms that fit with exercise pattern

1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2 can be practised with;
1. dah-di-di-dah twice (X in Morse code)
2. di-di-di-dah twice (V in Morse code)
3. dah-di-dah-dah/di-di-di-di (Y-H in Morse code)

Example 2: Play with different articulations between the hands

1. RH plays legato whilst LH play staccato —> try different dynamics between the hands
2. LH plays legato whilst RH plays staccato —>try different dynamics between the hands
3. BH play legato; RH play forte & LH imitation play (move your finger but no deep
pressing) —> try RH forte and LH piano (now pressing the key to the bottom gently)
4. BH play legato; RH imitation play (move your finger but no deep
pressing) & LH plays forte  —> try RH piano (now pressing the key to the bottom
gently) & LH forte
5. RH plays legato whilst LH play 2-note legato-staccto phrase –>try different dynamics
between the hands

,etc.

Transposing (to cultivate key sense and tonality)

Example 1: Choose one exercise from Nos.1-3 and transpose to a different key of your choice (one of my pupils chose B major, so all black keys are used and it’s easier, so he said!)

Example 2: Transpose to a enharmonic key (e.g. C major played in C harmonic minor;
D major played in D harmonic minor, etc.)

Counterpoint practice (to cultivate ear-eye-hand coordination)

Example 1: Hands playing 10th apart (e.g. LH starting on C; RH starting on E)

Example 2: Left hand plays twice as slower than right hand (in this, the right hand plays the patterns twice until the left hand catches up)

It’s also worth noting that there exists Hanon book geared towards younger learners, callled Junior Hanon edited by Alan Small and Morton Munus. In this edition, the hands are two octaves apart and exercises cover only one octave, so it’s more suitable for young learners aged above 8 years old. Having said that, for some of my teenage students still use this book rather the original. It all depends on their interests and mind setting.

Supplement with exercise pieces

Classical Piano Duets for Teacher and Student Book 1 & 2 (selected and edited by Gayle Kowalchyk & E.L. Lancaster)

Keep your fingers moving!

—update—
I started to add BH legato with RH forte & LH piano exercise in my Finger Exercises Before Hanon for piano for my students.  Students acquiring this skill before taking on challenging pieces that require dynamic balance between the hands is proving to be extremely useful.

 

In addition to my printed sheet music collection, I’ve decided to make some other collection of my piano pieces I often use for teaching available for digital download.

Recently discovery of PayHip (London-based company offering digital download solution), I thought I’d give it a try.  This platform allows me to link an audio from SoundCloud and a video from YouTube for each item to sell.  You can add multiple files for each entry.

Here’re some that are available for purchase currently:

Piano Duets for Piano Beginners

Piano Solo Arrangements for Intermediate Players

Original Piano Pieces for Intermediate Players

                                   ~~~~~

I’m hoping to add the following works before too long:

  • Three Black-Key Duets for piano beginners, written by Yukie Smith
    Exploring various melodic shapes by ear and also by eye.
  • Finger Exercise Duets for piano beginners, written by Yukie Smith
    For developing healthy piano hands/fingers and technique.
  • Finger Exercises Before Hanon for Elementary Players, written by Yukie Smith
    Useful for developing finger dexterity before introducing Hanon exercises.  Using only 4 fingers at a time (except the last one!), with 3 Morse Code rhythmic variations to explore various articulations.

 

Happy Playing!