In addition to writing many teaching materials for my pupils, I often write many piano solo arrangements of known songs by their request.  But I sometimes come across music myself that I deeply fall in love with and haunt me around long enough to urge me to write an arrangement for it, so that I can play it on my piano.  One of which is Joni Michell’s A Case of you.

There are many musicians who cover this deeply moving song and I’m not surprised… I am one of them. I have three favourite versions of this song; Joni’s original, her 2000 jazz version with this mesmerizing arrangement by Vince Mendoza and Prince’s cover version. I was deeply moved by all three. I spent every minute of writing (and laborious editing!) this arrangement with an outpouring of affection towards this song. I hope you too enjoy playing this arrangement as much as I enjoyed arranging it. As always, thank you Joni for giving us many, many beautiful songs.

Here’s the demo recording of this arrangement. I’d like to record it again to create an video to put on YouTube some time in the future, just I did with Both Sides Now (https://yukiestpiano.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/368/), but hopefully a better one. Until then…

The sheet music for this arrangement is available from the Joni Mitchell’s official web site for free download.

I assume many music teachers have their own favourite mnemonic device or landmark notes system to help the students to memorise the notes’ positions on the stave (staff). For piano players, it’s important to be able to read the notes up and down across the great stave (staff) seamlessly. Some years ago, I came up with my own landmark notes idea to introduce a couple of chosen line notes across the great stave (staff), so the learners can use these notes to find other notes around it on the piano by reading intervallically without necessarily knowing the letter name for all the notes on the staves. That means they can focus on learning to play melodic or harmonic patterns rather reading and seeing each individual note.

Here’re the landmark notes I’ve chosen and added the mnemonics to them:

landmark-notes

The order of introducing these notes that I often go for is:

  1. Middle C, G clef G and F clef F
  2. BirthDay notes (middle line note in the treble=B and middle line note in the bass=D)
  3. Ground G (as in the ground floor) and Fly away F (to emphasise the highest line in the great stave; you can fly away from the top line!)

Additional landmark note: Dangling D in the treble stave (this characteristic feature seems to stick in children’s mind well, so it’s a popular one to use)

Once the learners have gone through enough drills (or any helpful games!) to exercise reading these individual notes, they can exercise writing melodic patterns on a manuscript paper. For example, choose one landmark note, such as G clef G, then go step up twice (from line note to space note and then to line note again), throw in a couple of skips here and there (from line note to line note or from space note to space note), etc.

Having said that, depending the age, some learners need repetitive writing practice just going up stepwise and skipwise so that they can see clearly what stepwise/skipwise motion is on the stave.  Young aged children tend to take time in this.

When the learners get comfortable with various melodic shapes, here’re some extended ideas I often use; Word search.

  • BAG and FED are the first ones to introduce because they cover every single note on the piano except C (C on the piano seems to be everyone’s favourite, so is easy to spot!).  And also because it’s a stepwise motion, finding them on the piano is also simple and can be used as a reminder for the key names on the piano (I’m not in favour of using ABCDEFG to memorise the key names. You can guess why!)

The first position for BAG I’d use is starting on BirthDay B and then going descending stepwise.

For the first position for FED, I’d go for either starting on F clef F or ending on Dangling D. The decision is usually made depending on which landmark note is more in the learner’s memory and how well s/he understands how the melodic patterns work.

  • Then, usually progress to some other words, like EGG, DAD, BED, FACE, BAD, ACE (ACE is a useful one to introduce as a landmark chord because it covers skipwise intervals from the Middle C), etc.

Exercise form can be either reading the notes then playing them on the piano or playing first, then write the notes down or placing the notes on a notation board if teachers have one (very useful tool to have – I have a magnetic one of my own design).  For some words, finding the notes on the piano can be a little tricky, so I often leave that part of exercise out.  But generally children enjoy ‘spelling out’ the written notes to find the word.  They seem to  find it a good enough impetus not to dislike this game although it sometimes takes them time to find the word!

Although these type of exercises are useful and should be important part of the lessons, they’re more meaningful when they’re linked to what students are learning or going to learn. I often have them find a chosen landmark note(s) or a word (such as EGG, etc.) hidden in the music that they’re learning or are going to learn rather than starting from the first note in the music. Some of my students are very good at finding FED in the music because in their mind, it has got a characteristic shape. This sort of pattern search game always leads to finding repetitive patterns in the music; a very useful exercise to learn about a musical form eventually.

What I have shared in this post is just one part of various ideas that pop up as we work through reading exercises in the lessons. I hope you take something from the ideas here and expand them and turn them into your own.

Stay creative!

 

 

 

It’s a regular occurrence that my students ask for pop songs in piano lessons.  Some of them are beginners but keen learners.  Some are at the intermediate level.  Over the years, I’ve written many pop song arrangements aimed at various difficulty levels.  Some of them came out better than others.  For quite a while, I’ve been searching for a legal way of sharing them publicly.  In the past, my piano solo arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now has luckily been published from her official website as a free download.  Recently, I came across ArrangeMe with SMP Press (part of SheetMusicPlus.com), who has a contract with Hal Leonard, allowing composers/arrangers to submit legally their arrangements of copyrighted songs.  SMP Press offers a list of songs that are permitted to arrange and publish from ArrangeMe and the minimum price of each work is set by the copyright holders.  Currently, ArrangeMe arrangers are permitted 30 seconds of music to help showcase their arrangements without seeking for a mechanical licence.  Here are the current price minimums for ArrangeMe titles:

$4.99: Piano (including piano/voice/guitar, piano solo, easy piano, piano duet)
$2.99: Guitar (including guitar tab, solo guitar, easy guitar)
$4.99: Instrumental solo or duet
$12.99: Small instrumental ensemble
$40.00: Large ensemble set of score and parts (excludes concert band)
$4.99: Score only, large ensemble (excludes concert band)
$2.99: Extra part only, large ensemble (excludes concert band)

Here’re two of my piano solo arrangements published from SMP Press:

Read All About It, Part III by Emeli Sandé

A Thousand Years by Christina Perri

I think it’s a great scheme for composers/arrangers to be able to share their arrangements of copyrighted songs without infringing the copyright law.  For more information, visit ArrangeMe FAQ page.

Happy arranging!

 

In prior to the piano duet concert I’ll be performing with Marie-Noëlle Kendall, the local TV came to film us.  To be honest, I was horrified by the idea that I had to speak to the TV.   But at the hands of this man, Frankie Lowe, made this experience tolerable for me and managed to make me feel like I was speaking to a friend.  I’m ever so grateful for his efforts.  He was in charge of camera & lighting set-up, sound check, interview, filming, editing; basically everything.  How he managed to take bits and pieces out of our 1-hour interview and turn them into something coherent as a whole.  I say, that’s a talent and dedication.

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Broadcast on Cambridge TV, 23rd June on The M.A.C. (Music, Arts and Culture) programme as part of Cambridge News.

 

Our piano duet programme will be a good mixture of old time classics (Schubert’s Rondo in A & Fantasie in Fm & Schumann’s Bilder aus Osten) and something modern & exciting (Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques & Gorb’s Yiddish Dances).  Performing at the church venue is always a challenge because of the boomy acoustics.  Pedalling and tempi will have to be discussed and subtly adjusted on the day at the venue.  Having said that, one of the pieces we can take advantage of the church acoustics will probably be the Debussy piece. Irony is that this piece has the least number of notes between us, but yet causes the more hand clashes if we’re not careful.  Overcoming this slight problem, the sonority of this particular piece will surely sound magical in the church setting – to me, it’s an ultimate soundscape.  We hope that we’ll be able to give something to the audience that they can take home.  I look forward to having you with us on the day!

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Piano Duet Concert (Marie-Noëlle Kendall & Yukie Smith)
Saturday, 9th July at 7.30pm
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge UK

For the concert details: New Europe Society Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay creative!

===follow-up news===
This course came with a coupon (valid until June 2016) to enter myself or my students for ABRSM Jazz Exam free of charge. I’m happy to announce that my teenage student passed Jazz grade 4 with distinction. Some time in the future, I’d like to write a blog about how I help him prepare for the exam. He was juggling with GCSE exam preparation, so he had the very limited time he can allocate to practise improvisation. So, I created worksheets to cover everything he needs to know in a relatively short time scale to be able to improvise comfortably. So that he can apply the learned concepts to the improv section of the 3 pieces, Quick Study and in the aural section of the exam. It was sort of a shortcut method (if there’s such thing!). In addition to Tim Richards’ useful books and tips, I extensively used Bert Ligon’s Comprehensive Technique for Jazz Musicians. What I like about this book is that Bert also refers to classical music examples to reveal how the composer used a simple chord notes to elaborate melody lines. It’s an eye opening experience for those pianists who have never looked at the ever so familiar melody lines that way. Learning improvisation will definitely help increate an analytical skill for learning written pieces, no doubt.

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.


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

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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)

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My piano room layout and mics position:

my piano room & mic setting
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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.
P1000764

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:

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/remote-possibilities-acoustic-music-location-recording/856026-help-grand-piano-recording-small-room.html

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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.