Archives for category: Teaching

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!

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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. RH plays legato whilst LH play 2-note legato-staccto phrase –>try different dynamics between the hands


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.

Keep your fingers moving!

 

 

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!

 

 

In addition to a numerous already existing piano solo versions of Walking in the Air by Howard Blake, I’m adding another one here; a simple yet fulfilling version suited for piano players at their late elementary to early intermediate level.  One of my students heard it and she wanted to play a version which sounds like an original but not too tricky.  I tried by my best to maintain the flowing effect created by the arpeggio in the background without it being too difficult to play.  The sheet music is available from SheetMusicPlus.com.

cover-large_file

 

Other newly added piano arrangements requested by my students include:

 

Happy playing!

 

One of my transfer piano students once told me a story about her first experience of learning how to read musical notation. She said ‘my teacher told me to memorise the notes (i.e. letter names and position on the stave) but it’s not reading though, is it.’  She was making a good point there, I thought. How to get better at reading music is not focused on being able to identify each individual note in the music. It’s the ability to be able to see a series of notes as a pattern (scalic or chordal), and hear how it should sound like in your head before playing it. Although, knowing some notes by name and their positions on the stave and keyboard is essential to begin with. As soon as students learn a few notes’ position on the stave and keyboard and are able to play a couple of simple tunes, they should start exercising reading/playing melodic/chordal patterns, along with singing them whilst playing; you’ll be surprised how much ‘singing’ can contribute towards the control your finger movements.

Keeping the above thought in mind, I’ve tried many ways of exercising reading skill over the past years. Some approaches turned out be time consuming than the others. When I realised that most of my students rather spend their time focusing on playing music they enjoy (although they wish to improve their reading skill!), I wondered if I could use a Flashcard drill idea for melodic/chordal reading exercise. So that students won’t feel it’s a task, but it’s more like a reading game at the end of each lesson. And if I can make it to be something simple but musically and harmonically pleasing yet at the same time exercises their coordination skills required for reading/playing…

Note Reading Drills for piano_cover

Out came this note reading exercises for piano. Exercises are based around 5 set of landmarks notes grouped into 5 sections.  Some of the exercises have an accompaniment to show how a simple exercise can turn into something more, which I hope gives students some space to explore dynamic shaping and tone control or use it as a motif for composition.

Metre is not set on the exercises but the black notes are to be played steadily and slowly with even note value.  So that they can focus purely on reading a series of notes without worrying about rhythmic values. Students also have a chance to create their own exercises.

The idea of this booklet is to help students learn some notes as a guide note to find other notes around them and also to gain a skill to be able to read a series of notes as a pattern (scalic, chordal or mix), which is an essential skill to be become better at reading music.

The booklet is in an A6 landscape format, and is plastic coil-bound. There’re 75 melodic (some chordal) patterns plus 10 little pieces at the end. It’s a small book but the note sizes are much bigger than those in beginner’s piano books. I’d say it’s a pocket size so you can carry it about anywhere. You can even practise reading away from the piano, should you wish too! Another useful skill to exercise; being able to sing the melodic pattern without playing it; visualising the finger movements according to the melodic (chordal) patterns.

I’ve been testing the drills with my students aged 9 and above.  It’s helping me identify the weaknesses in their reading skill, whether reading across the two staves, melodic intervals, etc.  They seem to enjoy doing it as a fun game.  Particularly when I play the accompaniment and use sustain pedal for a sound effect!

The booklet is available from my website shop.

Happy reading!

As I explained here, the basic idea of this book is to help young piano beginners (aged 4 to 6) to explore ‘sound’ through singing, listening, decoding, writing, etc.  I thought I’d share one example way of using this booklet in the lessons.

s_Creature Booklet

I took a minimalist approach for the layout of this booklet so that the learners can focus on the important information that requires their full attention.  And also this gives teachers and students some room to experiment/explore elements that make music ‘musical’, such as dynamics, articulation, tempo, phrasing, creative thinking, etc.


Page 2-3

The original idea on these two pages has been explored in a form of puzzle game, which I DIY’d.  Using two of 45cm x 45cm Velcro boards, I stuck the cutout images of these creatures, black-key houses and other features.  A teachers can ‘mess up the order’ so that a student can put them in the right order.  Multi-sensory approach such as this can help learning much more meaningful. To facilitate the memorisation of the order, I associate the images with a story, for example:

Two Black-Key House
1. Who sleeps in the kennel? A dog!

2. Elephant loves eating tree leaves, so let it sit by the tree.
3. Cats and dogs often hate each other but in this house, they’re best friends!  So, they sit  next to each other.

Three Black-Key House
1. Which ones are hopping creatures? Frog and grasshopper!

2. Frog loves swimming in the pond, so it sits by the pond.
3. Bee collects nectar for honey from the flowers, so he stays next to the flowers.
4. The smallest creatures sit inside the three black-key house.  Ant and grasshopper sits next to each other.

Creature Puzzle Board_small

As a follow-up reinforcement, I often use flashcards with images, so that the learners gradually get used to identifying a single (white) key name on the piano with the letter name. Here’re some examples:

Creature Puzzle Flashcard_small

Repeated reinforcement via visual and verbal involvement is quite important for young learners. This game exercises their brain efficiently and they usually memorise all the white key names in a couple of lessons and they can identify a single white key name on the piano without counting up from A to G!

This is one example of showing what’s provided in a couple of pages in the book (or any tutor book!) is often not enough and it usually requires supplemental work to get the most benefit.  Hence, teachers would need to use their imagination to help their young students internalise what they have just learned.


Page 8
Keyboard orientation & rhythm practice by singing rhythmic syllables. Although the fingering is suggested, it can be other finger such as 3. Notes can be played any part across the keyboard; have students decide which part of the keyboard they want to play on.  Encourage students to sing rhythmic syllables (green line: long, yellow line: short), not the creature names. Processing the images, Moving fingers, singing rhythms is a multi-tasking experience, which is a very much needed coordination skill for piano playing! Always draw students attention to a steady pulse as they sing and play.

Teacher can play the first bar followed by the student playing the second bar to see if they can keep a steady pulse throughout.  Or teacher can play a simple accompaniment to go with the meloly to help the student establish a steady pulse.  Be creative!

Creature Booklet page8_small

Page 14
Note writing. Regular practice of transcribing rhythmic notation is a good way of having the learners aware of a note value that is attached to each note.  Also it’s a good way of getting used to ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ the meaning of the notes before students start learning to read musical notation later on. As shown on this page, above each creature you see a note, of which value is set according to the rhythmic syllable line (long or short) written under each creature. From this page onwards, ask the student to write rhythmic notation above each creature as a regular writing practice.


Page 16
Dynamics
. When the learners are getting comfortable with singing and playing from the creature notation, it’s a good time to introduce another element of music, dynamics. Start with simple two contrasting loudness: forte (loud) and piano (soft or quiet). On this page shows the two identical melodic patterns. Ask to suggest a way to make an echo effect, etc.  It may be a good time to explain why we call this keyboard instrument ‘piano’!  For those who doesn’t know, try googling ‘Cristofori’s pianoforte’.

Creature Booklet page16_small


Page 21
Articulation & melodic shape recognition
. When the learners get used to singing and playing creature notation, it’s time to start introducing another element of music; articulation (slur and staccato), which can add a flavour to the sound. Slur can be explained as ‘walky’ and staccato as ‘jumpy’. Teach how to write slur and staccato sign over or under the notes.

Creature Booklet page21_smallSome pages can be played as one piece, a good example is page 20 & 21. Melodic shapes are very similar. Ask students to see if they can spot the difference and explain how different.  Using colour pencils to mark each shape as a reminder is another good idea:

 

Page 22
Composition/improvisation. When the learners feel comfortable learning pieces from this book, try encouraging them to create something or their own; perhaps in a ‘call & response’ style, or in a duet setting playing a counter-melody, etc. I’d like to share one example that occurred during the lesson with one of my 6 year-old students, although I didn’t’ intentionally set out to experiment with composing/improvisation!:


e.g1
O
ne of my 6 year old students wanted to write her own song using creature notation, so I gave her cut-out creatures so that she can paste them on a A4 paper to create her song. The only rule I gave her was ‘not to use all the creatures, just 2 or 3 to make a simple tune’. Here is what she came up with:

6yo's tune_small

And I played an accompaniment to her song like this:

accompaniment example_6yo's tune

e.g.2
As we played together the melody shown below, my 6 year-old student couldn’t keep the pulse, so we practised tapping the pulse as we sang the melody, then asked her to tap the beat on a single note as I played the melody. As we continued doing so, she started to responding to my playing, and than playing a counter melody to it; B– B– | CBC– |. By then she established a steady pulse in her playing. This can idea can be extended to composition exercise within a frame set by the teacher.

Creature Booklet page22_small


Introducing notes on the standard stave
With most of my students, I introduce note writing exercises as soon as they are exercised to recognise line/space notes and can understand basic rhythmic values (short & long) and . Notes are written on a single stave without a clef just to practise writing space notes and line notes, including ledge line notes so that they understand how the notes can move up and down on the stave. I wrote a blog post about it some time ago if you’re interested in reading.

By the time they get to half way through the Creature Booklet, they’re ready to start doing some transcribing exercises:

Creature Booklet transcription example_small

Having done a few exercises like this, my students could transcribe their own creature-notated songs into standard notation.

Have fun with creatures on the keys and always look out for what the student is captivated by on the moment and turn it into some creative activities. Be intuitive and spontaneous!

 

My fascination with Morse code rhythm has started ever since I heard Barrington Pheulong‘s Inspector Morse theme tune. When I discovered that I could use Morse code rhythms to explain some hard-to-explain rhythmic patterns in music to my students in a direct way so that they can get the feel of how the rhythms should go rather than understand them mathematically.  Motivated by that fact, I started writing short rhythmic tunes using Morse code style notation, and they became very popular amongst my young students.  Because they only need to know two rhythmic syllables (dah and di) to play syncopated rhythm tunes without needing to read standard musical notation.  In my piano studio, these Morse code tunes have become a cornerstone of the rhythmic and aural exercises to improve overall piano playing skills. They’re turning out to be very useful for working on articulations, effective dynamic shaping, ear-eye-hand coordination, attentive listening, and learning about tonalities and metres, etc.

There’re 27 tunes (plus a bonus tune) and are of varying length from 4 to 14 bars. They are repetitive so that players learn about the usefulness of repeated short musical ideas in music. The ideas in this book can be extended to be used as a tool to set a motif for a composition.

For those who can already read music and also for those who are starting to read, it may be an idea to add an activity of transcribing some of the tunes into standard musical notation as shown in the book on p.48~49 (p.50~51 in A4 version) as examples or something inventive like this!:

Morse code notation example2_small

Another creative way of exercising Morse code rhythms would be to use a drum metronome usually equipped on any digital piano these days.  Unlike a standard metronome, a drum metronome has its own rhythmic patterns with a strong steady pulse provided (if you choose the right style, that is!), which often helps players increase their focus level in listening and improve their play-along-to-the-beat skill. You probably find yourself moving (head nodding to start with!) to a drum metronome more to feel the beat.

But before using a drum metronome, it may be advisable to do a simple exercise learning how to ‘listen and play’ to what you hear.  The simplest and most effective exercise actually occurs during learning the Morse code tune; at the stage where you sing the Morse code rhythms whilst playing the notes.  In most cases, players tend to play faster than their singing.  Draw their attention to what they’re singing and ask them to ‘match’ the speed of their playing to their own singing speed.  A couple of playing through this way, they learn what it takes to ‘really listen’ to your own playing.  Voice can be the best the guide, not only as a metronome but also in controlling the finger movement, shaping musical phrases, etc.

The book is available from my website shop and also via Amazon.com and Amazon Europe (UK, France, Germany, Italy, etc.).

cover image wo c

Special thanks to my husband for his support in making this book, Ewan Bailey for allowing me use his witty cartoon illustration, Barrington Pheloung for inspiring me in the first place.  Last but not least, my students for giving me the impetus to write this book and also for being the most honest critics.

Happy playing!