Archives for posts with tag: listening

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!

Advertisements

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, technique, etc.  Teachers can add a simple accompaniment to help students establish a steady pulse and also cultivate a listening ear.

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.

Alphabet Song Book page5_small

The key thing to remember here is to sing the rhythmic syllables (e.g. shortshortlong) 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.

Alphabet Song Book page13_small

As a practice of being aware of rhythmic value for each note, trace over each rhythm line under each letter name with a colour explained on page 5.

 

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.)

Alphabet Song Book page16_small


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!

Alphabet Song Book page17_small


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!

—Update—
I’ve been using this book with my piano beginners for some time now; some started with no interests in reading musical notation; some had some knowledge of musical notation but haven’t quite got the hang of it; some can play pop songs by rote but never tried reading musical notation, some had just started the piano but keen to learn how to read music, etc.

When they get to about page 29, I started giving them a couple of longer pieces as a challenge from various beginner’s piano books, such as Jibbidy-F and A-C-E by Hoover Ward, Music Lessons Have Begun by Fletcher, various primer level pieces from Faber & Faber’s Piano Adventures series, Hal Leonard’s Broadway and Movie Hits Level 1 (piano duet), etc.  My students’ reaction to this challenge has been quite a positive one and when they realise they can read music to play a proper tune, it certainly boosts their confidence and motivation to carry on with the rest of Alphabet Song Book 1 and beyond!

My students’ favourite part of the book is composition pages .  By the time they reach composition pages, they usually have some knowledge on flats and sharps which are covered in pieces such as Pink Panther, which I usually teach them by rote.  Although the suggested notes and rhythms for the composition work are from the book, they often tend to experiment using the knowledge they have learned outside the book as well.

This is the part I do enjoy too as a teacher; getting a glimpse of my students’ creative world that I haven’t seen before.  Some use similar patterns from the book but in a different order or their repetition; some create mysterious sounding music using suggested notes but with sharps and flats;  some show a skill of creating symmetrical patterns; some show natural sense of 2-bar phrases; some adds other musical details such as dynamics and articulations themselves without me reminding them; some play around and explore before writing anything in, etc.

So far, my students are finishing the book 1 at the pace of 6-7 months along with other assignments they’re working on.  They’ve learned how to read and write a simple music, along with the importance of dynamics and articulations.  They’ve acquired a skill to recognise melodic/rhythmic patterns and their repetitions in music.

I look forward to reporting on Alphabet Book 2 soon!

—Update2—
Alphabet Song Book 3 is now available from my website shop!

One of the joyful experiences you can have in piano duet playing is to be able to explore the sound of rich harmonies and a wide range of dynamics that piano is capable of producing.  For the very young beginners, it’s still possible with just a few keys on the keyboard to have a taste of that experience even before they start learning to read notation.

I have 3 videos with 3 different tunes here as an example where we explored various elements of music as well;

No.1 – The Ground Is Breaking

  • steady pulse (pupil listening to other than him/herself)
  • metre (we sang 1-2-3-4 in tune with the melody)
  • structure (3 sections to be aware for their different characters)
  • harmonies (something that piano is excelled at!)
  • musical character (make use of what children are good at; making a story according to the character of the tune, then coming up with the title of their own for the tune!)
  • articulation (detached rather than legato to follow the character of the tune)
  • dynamics (loud and soft with the use of arm weight)



No.2 – The Grand Old Duke of York
In addition to the above list, we had a few extra activities to explore.

  • composing (some little ones are full of ideas, give them a chance to use their own imagination to make the tune special to them!)
  • articulation (legato was achieved by the finger walking game on the keyboard)



No.3 – Going Home
This tune has a bit more movement than the other two previous tunes.  So, we needed to work out something more visual so that my pupil can internalise the tune in an organised way.  In doing so, we created a colour-coded shape for each phrase pattern.  Colourised drawing of some sort always comes in handy when reading notation is not just yet part of a regular practice in the lessons.  Here’s the example of what we came up with:

colour-coded phrase patterns

Finally, here’s my thought on why I choose to spend more time on using black keys for the young beginners.  Not only it helps them to orientate themselves around the keyboard geography, but also tiny hands and fingers can learn to develop a nice grip easier with the black keys than the white keys because of the fact that the level of the hand stays more or less with the level of the while keys when the black key is pressed.  Less chance of the wrist dipping when the finger presses the key!

Another important issue I’d like to address is that singing the tune while playing is a very positive start of learning to perform musically.  Not only it helps to internalise the tune with steady pulse, but also helps the fingers to find the right notes on the keyboard.  Having said that, I must admit that singing the black-key range (g♭’, a♭’, b♭’) may be a bit out of comfortable voice range for some children.  It may help if the teacher sings along in the right pitch and sing down an octave when necessary.  The focus here is to follow the melodic shape reflected in the singing, not to sing absolutely in tune.  It’s amazing to realise what’s capable when the ‘listening ear’ is truly open!

I hope this video serves a useful purpose of helping to inspire anyone who involves in music making with young children.

In this video recording I used the following equipments and software:

Piano model: Yahama C5A
Microphone: 2 x AKG P420 (MS setting)
Digital recorder: Zoom H4n (I didn’t use its inbuilt XY mics)
Audio editor: Cubase LE4
Video recorder: Flip Video Ultra HD
Video editor: CorelStudio Pro X5

I’d like to write a blog about my home recording at some point.  This is a never-ending experimentation since recording and capturing the sound of piano is considered to be the most difficult task because of its wide range of dynamics, frequencies and overtones.  A slight change of positioning and angle of the microphones easily affects how the sound comes out in the recording, I find!