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!

In one of the Jane Sebba’s Abracadabra piano books, I found the most useful word rhythms to teach one of the most commonly used polyrhythms; 3 against 2.  She gives us a tune called ‘Cold Cup of Tea’.  This is how both hands fit into the syllables. 3 against 2 As you may find out, it works instantly without any complication.  Now, can we use this brilliant idea to learn trickier polyrhythms such as 4 against 3.  How about this: 4 against 3 Works for you? Next step is to apply this exercise to your playing.  Instead of tapping every syllable with your hand, try using different finger for each syllable. For 3 against 2: 3 against 2-fingers For 4 against 3: 4 against 3-fingers When you become comfortable with the above finger exercises, try swap the patterns between the hands. For 3 against 2: 3 against 2-fingers-2 For 4 against 3: 4 against 3-fingers-2 Are you ready for the final challenge?  Try saying ‘1, 2, 3’ instead of ‘Cold Cup of Tea’ and ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ instead of ‘Cold Cup of Tea and Buns’. To go further, pick the notes of your choice on the piano and try with the sound.  You can also try different fingerings. Working on such polyrhythms as these certainly work hard on improving your coordination between the hands, eyes and also ears (always listen attentively to what you’re hearing, which will play a great part in improving your coordination!). Good luck!

When one of my young piano students just finished learning the final piece from the W. Gillock’s Accent on Solo Book 1, he suddenly played ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with his right hand, as if he was saying, ‘Remember this song? I can play it so easily now.’ Then, I thought why not recycle this song to introduce the Alberti Bass, which is one of the most common left hand patterns appeared in many sonatinas and sonatas of standard classical repertoires. Here’s how we did:

1. Sing and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with the right hand while rotating the left wrist in the air as if you’re turning a screw driver. One syllable for each wrist turn:

Words & LH & RH RH pattern only

2. Do the same exercise as above, except the left hand now stays on the keyboard surface while rotating it (no need to worry about playing any note with the left hand just yet!).

3. Sing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ while playing C & G alternately with the left hand, maintaining the wrist rotation. Words & LH LH pattern only

4. Sing and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ with the right hand while playing C & G alternately with the left hand, maintaining the wrist rotation. The player should focus on the right hand pattern (visually and aurally) while the teacher can help rotating the player’s left hand, so that the s/he gets used to the feeling of moving the hands in a different way. RH&LH

5. When playing the above exercise becomes comfortable, change C & G to F & G when singing ‘little lamb’ for the second time and also ‘fleece is white as’. End the song with C – G – C instead of C – G – C – G. This exercise will keep the player busy for a while! LH pattern only2

6. When ready, add an extra note (E) for the first left hand pattern (C & G). Try without the right hand first to learn this new pattern. Always practise with singing the song. Play E instead of C for the second time (C-G-E-G, C-G-E-G…)

LH pattern-alberti bass

7. Finally, if the player feels ready, add an extra note (B) for the second left hand pattern (F &G). Play B instead of F for the first time (B-G-F-G, B-G-F-G…)

LH pattern-alberti bass2

Good luck!

Yesterday was a 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.

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