Archives for category: Teaching

Alphabet Song Book_1

As I explained here, the basic idea of this book is to help piano beginners (aged 7 and above) to get started with learning how to read musical notation.  I thought I’d share how I’m using this book in the lessons.

The contents are simply laid out so that students can get on with work on a need-to-know basis. The intention of this book is to help the piano beginners grasp how learning to read musical notation works, by repetition, writing and creative activities. The book also leaves enough space for students and teachers to explore other details of piano study when ready, such as experimenting with dynamics, articulations, phrasing, tempi, etc.

Page 4
The use of four-colour strip for the piano keys is inspired by the Colourstrings. I find it the most useful tool to make the ocean of black keys and white keys on the piano looks somehow manageable. Here’s a template to create a four-colour strip, which should fit on any standard key-sized piano. Make sure to open the file in Acrobat Reader and print it out as an ‘actual size’, not ‘fit to page’).  I use self-adhesive book cover vinyl (cut to 2cm square) to paste four strips together (much stronger than standard cellotape, I find).

 

Page 2 & 3
Keyboard orientation.
I’d usually introduce BAG only for young children. The reason being that the first half of the book is focused on learning the melodies based on BAG.

 

Page 5
An example of rhythmic patterns appeared throughout the book is introduced here in a 4-bar rhythm tune. Students can experiment with it by creating a tune using these rhythms, starting with one-note playing (any note or position across the keyboard!). Then, with two notes, then three, etc. Teacher and student can try a ‘call & response’ improvisation game; for example, the first 2 bars played by the teacher, followed by the  the student playing the next 2 bars.

The key thing to remember here is to sing the rhythmic syllables (e.g. short-short-long) whilst playing the notes, with a steady pulse. Each heart shown on the page represents one pulse (beat).

Pulse in music is like our hearbeat; you can’t hear it but it’s always there ticking and you can feel it. Ask your student to tap each pulse as they sing the rhythms. This is the first ear-eye-hand coordination exercise!; tapping one thing and singing another at the same time.

 

Page 7 (the first BAG tune!)
Start with one-hand playing, right or left hand. Find the hand position using the keyboard guide.   Remember to sing the rhythmic syllables (NOT the letter names!), this exercises the skill to be able to follow two different information at the same time. Complete writing the rhythmic notation above each letter name. From the next page on, dotted guide line for the rhythmic notation disappears. It’s students’ job to remember to write in rhythmic notation above each letter name from page 8 onwards. It encourages students to be constantly aware of the note value attached to each note.

Students also could play the tune with both hands to develop the coordination.

 

Page 13
Practise writing
B note on a single F (bass) clef stave. Learn to write the same note in various note values here. Keyboard guide now has the Middle C position marked in. Have students try finding the B note below Middle C on page 12. Make sure which clef stave students should be looking at, top or bottom.

 

Page 14
From this page onwards, students can write rhythmic notation with the stem pointing downwards if they wish to. Why is the note upside down? The answer is on page 11 where students practised writing notes on the great stave. Refer to it again and have them explain why!

Also from this page onwards, students have a chance to remind themselves of the new note they’ve just learned, by spotting it amongst other notes.

For one bar on this tune, the letter names disappears and are replace by the B notes written on the F (bass) clef stave. Ask students what notes they are; they would know what to play there. Make sure students are still singing rhythmic syllables whilst playing the notes. Finally, ask students how many B note they can find in this tune.

Also I’d experiment with dynamics at this point when students are getting used to playing some tunes. Loud (forte) and soft (piano). Let students decide which bars (measures) they wish to play loud and soft and add dynamics markings accordingly.

 

Page16
Pattern recognition
. Can students find repeated melodic patterns in this tune? Once they recognise them, they can be aware of playing the same thing twice. Economical reading skill!

A new note, A, to practise writing on the F (bass) clef stave. I’d have students compare it with the B note and explain the difference (line note, space note, where on the stave, etc.)

 

Page 17
Time to experiment with articulation here. Legato playing. What’s legato playing? Basically, imagine your fingers are your legs doing a walking action on the keyboard; one finger presses the key, and then the next finger presses but the link between the two fingers slightly overlaps before the first finger releases the key, so that the two notes sound connected rather than disjointed. The arch marking to indicate legato playing is called slur. Write a slur marking over the first three notes to be played legato. Ask students to write some more slurs in!

 

Page 19
All the letter names now disappear! But students know which note is B, A, G note by now. Although it’s important recognise each note in letter name, it’s equally important to be able to see a group of notes as a pattern. B-A-G looks like a smooth downward slope. B-G-A is more ragged. It’s a useful exercise to drawn students’ attention to the patterns in each tune. I’d also challenge them to find BAG in the tune; circle the B-A-G pattern and sqaure the backwards BAG, G-A-B pattern), not only within a bar (measure) but also across the barline!

 

Page 22
Composition
page! The first 8-bar tune is to consist of two 4-bar tunes that students have learned in the previous pages. Choose 2 pages to copy or transcribe. If students choose from page 7 to 13, the notes are all in letter names, so they have to trascribe the letter names into notation, which is an exercise itself to test their knowledge on these three notes, BAG. The second 8-bar tune is to be composed by students.  This is a creative test to see how imaginative students can be to come up with yet another tune consisting of 3 notes only. Be prepare to be surprised!

 

Page 23
Appearance of the D note on the G (treble) clef stave. From this page on, the tunes will be laid out on the double staves (great stave). Usually, the top stave is for the right hand, the bottom stave is for the left hand. Warning here!: G (treble) clef doesn’t mean ‘right hand’ and F (bass) clef doesn’t mean ‘left hand’! G (treble) clef simply refers to the area above the Middle C. In some music, the left hand does play the notes above the Middle C on the keyboard. In that case, you’ll see G (treble) clef on the bottom stave as well as on the top stave.

Up to the previous page, students could play the tune with both hands in unison but from this page on, the both hands’ positions are set specifically as indicated.

It’s another good point to experiment further with dynamics; Soft (piano), medium soft (mezzo piano), medium loud (mezzo forte), loud (forte), gradually getting louder (crescendo) and getting gradually softer (diminuendo). Perhaps in the faster speed when ready.

It’s also a good time to introduce the real names of note values for short, long, twice as long, etc.  In my piano studio, I use American name rather than British, simply because it makes more sense and it helps students understand the concept of time signature when they get to it.

The second half of the book covers more BAG tunes with two added notes, E & D (ED). Go over (again) page 3 to get familiar with all FEDs across the keyboard. Work through the pages to the end likewise as suggested for the first half of the book.

Alphabet Song Book 2 (for piano) will explore triple time (3/8 time rather than 3/4 time), and more words, FED, EGG, Cs and A-B-C in addition to BAG, and delve into the concept of basic time signatures. 2/4 and 3/8. It’ll be available soon.

Happy reading!

For the past months, I’ve been experimenting with a new way of improving sight-reading for my students preparing for the ABRSM piano exam (Grade 1 to 5 levels in particular). Some have an innate ability to sight-read without so much difficulties (except in tricky keys and rhythms) and some have a tendency of freezing up as soon as there comes a point where they have to play the two lines simultaneously. To overcome common problems associated with sight-reading, I’ve decided to give it a completely new approach where it doesn’t involve note reading but it involves understanding of keys, metres, rhythmic patterns & melodic composition and harmony. I call it an “improvisation” approach. This approach seems to stimulate the parts of the brain, which tends to be less exercised in other approaches I’ve tried and improve the overall eye-ear-hand coordination required to become better at sight-reading.

Here’s my new improvisation approach I’ve been testing with my students using Paul Harris’ Improving Your Sight-Reading (for piano) series:

  1. Pick a rhythmic exercise to use as a base for improvisation

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, Stage 4 Rhythmic Exercises]

Rhythmic Exercise from Paul Harris' book

  1. Let the student decide which key they wish to practise in; some will choose the easiest key; some will choose the one that they feel they need to practise the most. Have the student play one octave scale in the chosen key to check all the scale notes (hands separately). Now, set the right hand position for 5-finger pattern (scale note: 1 to 5).

 

  1. Now, look at the chosen rhythmic exercise, and create a random melody following the given rhythms. The right hand plays the top rhythm using 5 notes whilst the left hand plays the tonic note of the chosen key on every beat. It’s likely that those who are new to improvisation exercise tend to play lots of repeated notes and change the note here and there or play too many wide intervals, which usually result in an unmusical tune.

 

Ways to experiment in your improvisation exercise:
Make sure your eyes are always following the rhythms on the staves throughout the exercises!

Idea-1. Try playing a scale up and down following the given rhythms without repeating any note consecutively. The last note should be the tonic note (for now). If the tonic note seems to come earlier than you’d like, make a detour (going around the tonic note) so that the exercise ends on the tonic note. Likewise, if there’re one or two too many notes before reaching the tonic note, skip a note or two so that you can end the exercise on the tonic note:

e.g.

impro_ex1

Idea-2. Recognise any repeated or similar pattern in the rhythms. For those patterns, you could play the same notes in the same order:

e.g.

impro_ex2

Idea-3. Use a mixture of steps and skips but no wide intervals (for now). Many tunes that you can easily sing/hum often consist of stepwise motion (consecutive intervals of 2nd) with occasional skip(s) (interval of 3rd):

e.g.

impro_ex3

Idea-4. Experiment with the direction of the melody line to create contrasting ideas. For example, one pattern going down-up-up-down and then the second pattern going up-down-down-up.:

e.g.

impro_ex4

Idea-5. Be inventive using an economical compositional technique, sequence. For example, in the first bar, play the first four notes in an ascending form, then one step down. Then repeat this idea for the second bar but starting on one note higher. You could add the 7th note of the scale (note one below the tonic note) for creating an effective ending. You could also change the note value of the LH pattern; holding each note twice as longer ( LH pattern1 ); or combination of the two note values (e.g.  LH pattern2  ). Each change introduced will help increase your ear-eye-hand coordination:

e.g.

impro_ex5

Idea-6. When you become comfortable with improvising within the 5-finger position, it’s time to extend your horizon a little bit. Try using one octave scale notes and introduce some repeated notes. For example, for the first two bars, use the top part of the scale (scale note: 4 to 8), and then for the following 2 bars, use the bottom part of the scale (scale note 1 to 5). Always remember to use the fingerings that you’ve learned from your scale practice. (e.g. know when to bring the third finger over the thumb, so that you won’t run out of the fingers to complete the phrase):

e.g.

impro_ex6

Idea-7. Change the LH pattern to Tonic-Dominant note played alternately on every beat. This increases the attention you’d need to pay for both hands. Keep reminding yourself of the order of the notes in the LH whilst improvising with your right hand:

e.g.

impro_ex7

Other LH patterns to experiment:

  • Alberti bass following I-V7 chord sequence
  • Tonic & Dominant 7th chords in a blocked form
  • I-IV-V7-I chord sequence in a form of blocked chord or broken chord

e.g.

impro_ex9

N.B. In 3/4 time, you could try Tonic-Dominant-Dominant pattern. Another notch up to increase your eye-ear-hand coordination here!


Idea-8.
When all the experiments seems to come naturally under your fingers, it’s time to swap the task between the hands! Now, RH plays the beat notes whilst LH plays improvisation.

e.g.

impro_ex8

For whatever you do in your improvisation, always aim to create a musical phrase; a phrase you’d be able to sing naturally so that the music doesn’t sound like a collection of notes being played randomly without a sense of direction, and if you can add dynamics to shape the melody line. Also, you could try different tempi if you feel ready.

When you get used to improvise in your chosen key, it’s time to delve into as many sight-reading exercises written in the same key as possible.

 

What to look for in the score before you start sight-reading:

[Excerpt from Improve Your Sight-Reading Grade 2, p.15]

 e.g.

Sight-reading excerpt_grade2_p15-1

  1. Check the key signature and time signature and decide how fast your beat speed is going to be according to the tempo description (e.g. Andante) or character description (e.g. lively) if there is one.

 

  1. Pattern analysis: rhythms, melodic shapes, repetition (sequence, etc.), any tricky rhythms that you’re not sure about? (–> find out how these rhythm fits within the beats).

e.g.
Melodic shapes

LH: Starting on the tonic note, play a 4 note-scale down to A (the lowest note in this exercise); two half notes (minims) per bar and then going back up to the E (the highest note in this exercise) by going through a sequence of 3-note scale, and then ends with the tonic note.

RH: Starting on the tonic note, a short motif ( 3-note motif ) is played and its repeated in the next bar, with slight different filling notes (first motif is followed by A-E, second by E only). It ends with the tonic-dominant-tonic pattern.

As you analise the patterns, try singing the notes as you quietly play them along. Make sure you take into account other details such as dynamics and articulation at this stage. If there are fingerings written in, try to follow them as well.

  1. Identify which hand part seems to have less notes and less movements? Loosely memorise such patterns so that you can focus on the other hand part that has got more notes and movement.


Do you remember how you managed to focus on getting the two lines going simultaneously when you did the improvisation exercise? Keep the easier part (LH) in the back of your mind as you focus on the more trickier part (RH).

 

  1. Before playing the exercise with both hands, see if you can sing the RH melody as you quietly play the LH melody. This helps you see/hear the two lines horizontally as well as vertically. Always be aware of the point where both hands come together. If there’s a gap in the music, clearly visualise where the beginning of each beat is, so you won’t loose counting.

 

  1. When the preparation is finally done, play the exercise once without stopping, no matter what happens. If you have to improvise a few notes around the mistake, go for it! It’s better than going back to fix it and loose the flow of the music. Sight-reading is about following the music without loosing the beat, playing as many correct notes as possible and playing them as musically as possible.

 

You may think there’re an awful lot of things to do/think about before playing a short exercise just once but the most important part is preparation. Just like anything else, be it DIY, sewing, planting, plumbing; getting the preparation work done properly makes the actual job go much smoother than going straight into it without any preparation.

Happy sight-reading!

A preview of our lunchtime concert on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at the Emmanuel United Reformed Church on Trumpington Street, Cambridge UK. Mifune Tsuji (violin)
and I (piano) will be performing memorable tunes from the films and beyond. Please stop by if you’re in the vicinity! It’s a free entry with a retiring collection for the church.

 

There’re tunes that I use with my beginner students of any age at the early stage of their piano learning; young children, older children and adults.  Ideals tunes that serves the purpose of keyboard orientation as well as introducing fundamental elements of how music works; sound, pulse, silent pulse, melodic shape, character, articulation, dynamics, theory, etc.

1.Whole-tone scale based tunes:
To the Moon_small

On the Moon_small

Back to the Earth_small

By the end of exploring the keyboard playing these tunes, students are usually well aware of what makes spacey sound (whole-tone scale); 3 black-key followed by 3 white-key (around 2 black-key) or 2 black-key followed by 4 white-key (around 3 black-key).  They also learn to listen attentively!

 

2.Chromatic scale based tune: Pink Panther by Henry Mancini

Preparation
Thumb on the white key and middle finger on the black key.

chromatic scale playing_small

tip for chromatic scale playing_small

Pink Panther _ bass patterns:
Pink Panther-bass patterns_small

This exercise teaches the students about counting, listening, articulation, dynamics, optimum hand shape, relaxed wrist, how to use thumb for piano playing, etc.

Next scales to explore will be diatonic ones, which is basically a mixture of above two scales!

I hope you enjoy a little time with your students to explore what piano can do before reading study begins.

Happy exploring!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure it’s a natural development for many enthusiastic and creative teachers to write pieces for their students.  The reason to do so may be for pure enjoyment on both parts or born out of necessity. There’re as many types of students as there’re teachers.  Every teacher is different and has his/her own approach and so is what each student wants out of the lessons. As one of the teachers who are trying their best to respond to such needs, I’ve also been writing many little pieces for my students for the past years, often tailored to the level of their playing skill and most importantly in a style of music that they can relate to. For me, the challenge is to help those who started the piano for the first time without any musical background (no music learning in their schools, etc.) and their age is about 9 years old and above. Unlike small children, those age group children have been regularly exposed to the music surrounding them and the reason why they want to take up piano lessons often is because they want to play like someone or want to play some songs they enjoy listening. That means that they have a rough idea what they wish to get out of their lessons. Having had gone through some tricky situations where I couldn’t seem to find enough materials for those particular age group beginners, I’ve started to write pieces for them, inspired by what they enjoy listening and wants to play. It took me some years before I managed to put them into sensibly categorised collections.

I’m pleased to announce that one of such collections is finally finished and professionally printed for publication.  This book is the second in the series aimed at the late elementary to early intermediate levels.  It came out earlier than the book one simply I frequently use the pieces from the book two with my teenage students at the moment.  Having said that, one of my ambitious little players who have just passed ABRSM grade 1 also started using it.  Hopefully, book one and three to follow soon, and then book four.

My students are happy now to have those pieces in a book form, not on the A4 printed sheets on their ring binders!

Please have a visit to my website if you’re interested in having a look. It’s available for purchase.  I’m gradually put all my other pieces into several collections (some etudes for piano beginners, some fun rhythm pieces based on morse code, some folk songs for children, etc.), which I hope to add to my website shop under sheet music in the near future.

Happy playing!

Explaining musical elements during the short lesson time can be tricky sometimes. Because it needs to be done but you don’t want to waste valuable lesson time in explaining them in length, but then you don’t want to give your students a quick answer just to save time, either, without engaging their thinking minds.

Over the years, I’ve been using tangible visual aids to teach musical elements such as note values, rhythmic patterns, key signatures, time signature, etc. Every time my students stumble across the problems, I refer them to the visual aids to guide them to solve the problems themselves. I find that when something is explained to the learners in a form of shapes and colours, it tends to stay in their memory longer and the learners can make a logical connection to what they already know to the new challenges.

Amongst many visual aids I’ve been using, I’ve decided to make some of them available in a professional printed form so that my students can take them home and use them as a guide when they are stuck on problems. Here’s one example, which I use to help my students understand about the metre (A4 card, both sided).

Note values_samples

I use American English for explaining note values (e.g. quarter note rather than crochet) because it can make a direct connection to how time signature is constructed. For example, in 3/4 time, a quarter note (1/4) gets one count, hence 4 as the bottom number of the time signature. Likewise, in 3/8 time, an eighth note (1/8) gets one count, hence 8 as the bottom number of the time signature, etc.

How to link the time signature to understanding of rhythmic patterns in music is another challenge for beginners who has just started reading notation. Here’s another chart I made to help my students ‘see’ how it all works.

Note values_samples2

There’re several other charts that were born out of my unique teaching practice. If you’re interested in having a look, please visit my website.

Happy Theory Learning!

It’s been a while since I started to use morse code for my piano students as a tool to interpret some tricky rhythms in music.   Morse code having only two rhythmic syllables (di for short sound, dah for long sound) makes it simpler to help them get the ‘feel’ of those rhythms of syncopated nature in particular, without knowing their notational values.  Children generally like decoding games, so when I find the rhythm that’s useful to interpret in morse code, I ask them to listen to the morse code signal (usually played on one note of the piano) and find its morse code letter on the morse code chart on the wall.  We sometimes create a tune out of morse code letters, which is another fun part!  ‘Decoding’ and the fact you only need to know ‘two rhythmic syllables’ seems to tickle their inner curiosity.  It’s a great to tool to exercise the creative brain that every child has.

Here’s the sample image of the morse code chart poster I made.  It’s been professionally printed on 150gsm silk paper.  It’s available for sale from my website shop:

s_Morse Code Chart_sample

I’m putting together a collection of morse code tunes I wrote for my students.  They are particularly popular amongst those whose music reading skill is still at the elementary level.  Focusing on the rhythms and finger positions on the keyboard makes it much simpler to learn some catchy tunes that you don’t usually come across until you reach early intermediate level.  No notation usually means that it helps open students’ ears to listen to their own playing more, and to just focus on the rhythms and playing.  I’m looking forward to making this collection available to the public in the near future.

Happy creative learning!