Archives for posts with tag: piano

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.


I’ve been asked by one of my 8 years old pupils’ mother yesterday; ‘I wonder when my son starts learning to read music. He seems to be frustrated because he can’t read yet. He’s so keen and wants to do more.’ He only started piano lesson 2 months ago and he’s learned a few pieces and etudes, and during the holiday he enjoyed playing a Christmas song with a harmony in the left hand. Off to a good start, without needing to read notes to learn pieces, so he can focus on getting his ear-eye-hand coordination sorted and ready to tackle an intricate task of decoding notation later on.

Coordination doesn’t just mean moving fingers and putting the hands together. It also includes the ability to ‘hear’ what you’re playing or what you’re going to play and how you’re going to play, to ‘understand’ high and low in sound in relation to up and down of the keyboard, to be able to ‘sing or hum’ the melody line while you’re playing to maintain steady pulse, to learn to sing or hum rhythmic patterns while you’re playing so that you’re aware of rhythmic values in music, to ‘transfer’ the information that your eye took in to your finger work, etc. When pupils have gained such coordination first, they usually find their way not to get frustrated when they start learning to read notation. So, to my view, a couple pages to cover how to read notation as you find in most conventional piano tutor books seems not sufficient enough. A lot more careful and considerate preparations leading to reading notation seems necessary and more sensible. With anything else, ‘internalising’ takes time and effort.

To compare how we learn to speak and read your language, it may sound much clearer. Did you start to read a book before you speak your language? Did you start learning to read before you can write a few words? When you read, do you read letter by letter to form a word? And finally, can you read this?

I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

In reading music, the same can be said, I believe. If your mind is trained to recognise patterns in relation to how they sound, guessing work can kick in and you can focus on executing the sound on your instrument. For this reason, I usually introduce to my pupils an interval reading technique, rhythmic reading/writing exercises and a few landmark notes writing exercises in the early stage of learning, while they learn to acquire coordination skill to be able to ‘hear’, ‘sing’ and ‘play’, so when it comes to reading music to learn pieces, they know what to do. They take in rhythmic values properly, they can maintain steady pulse while they play, they can play in an ensemble setting, etc, and they can eventually become independent learners.

Back to this 8 years old pupil of mine, he’s already done quite a bit of preparations to start reading notation very soon. He just doesn’t realise that they’re part the course and that he’s already acquired some reading skill to read music! He’ll soon no doubt find out he can actually read music 😉

One of the pleasurable experiences being performers is to come across with opportunities to play pieces of music written by living composers from whom we can ask for direct insight about the pieces.

This slow tango piece for violin and piano was written by the British composer, Graham Lynch.  I first came across with his name when he published a series of piano books for the elementary to intermediate levels (UK grade 1 – 4 standard), titled Sound Sketches .  Having being very enchanted by his writing style, I searched for more of his music, which resulted me in discovering some works he wrote for violin and piano. My passion!  But the sheet music weren’t available from music shops, so Graham kindly gave us the copies for the performance.  Having considered the programme we were performing, we decided to go for his Alba.

According to the composer, Alba takes its title from a Medieval genre of poetry of the same name, it’s poetry about the parting of lovers at dawn, and so is about love, regret, pain, which are all very much tango emotions.

If you’re interested in reading more about this piece, please visit the composer’s blog.

Once you trained your eye to differentiate between line notes and space notes (see my previous post about how to learn to sight-read), the next stage is to deepen the understanding how a series of notes on the stave correspond to the movement of them on the instrument you play. But before you start playing them on your chosen instrument, there’re a few more things to do away from your instrument. It’s to recognise whether the next note is going higher or lower than the one before, then how much higher or lower? Before going into the detail of interval (distance between two notes), I usually start with a simple writing game with my young learners. You don’t need to have knowledge of intervals at this point. I simply ask them to write:

1. A line note anywhere you like on the stave
What can you see-writing drill-1
2. Another line note a little bit higher than that
What can you see-writing drill-2
3. Another line note higher than that (that’s where you start using your imagination as you go outside the 5-line stave zone!)
What can you see-writing drill-3
4. A space note higher than that.
What can you see-writing drill-4
5. Another space note a tiny bit lower than that
What can you see-writing drill-5
6. A line note massively lower than that!
What can you see-writing drill-6
7. A space note a tiny bit lower than that without going away from the stave.
What can you see-writing drill-7
8. A line note a lot lower than that.
What can you see-writing drill-8
9. A space note higher than that but still away from the stave.
What can you see-writing drill-9-1
10. Now join all the notes to see what sort of shape appears!
What can you see-writing drill-9
Often, I ask little ones to come up with a title for the shape that appears. The best one I had so far was ‘The Bottom of the Sea’! This game is a first step for the learners to look for shapes in written notations in the music. So, it’s not a pointless exercise at all in my view. It also encourages them to use their imagination they don’t often get to use in learning the rudiments of music.

This writing game encourages the learners to apply what they already know from the previous line/space note recognition game I introduced in PART I where they saw notes with ledger lines to go higher/lower pass the 5-line stave area. No explanation is required because they’re already aware what the ledger line does in practice!

Along side this writing exercise, I also introduce the concept of going up a step or down and a skip up or down on the piano, like a staircase. Then, transfer that onto a paper to show what it looks like on the stave. It looks something like this:

Musical Staircase-steps

Tracing over the staircase under the notes can usually guide learners to grasp how notes are going up on the stave related to how they’re going up on the keyboard. Using the knowledge they already have, I ask them to colour only line (or space) notes. Colouring reveals a pattern of stepwise/skipwise motion on the stave:

Musical Staircase-steps coloured

Stepwise motion is always alternating between line and space note
Skipwise motion is either space notes only or line notes only

You can apply that on the keyboard (white keys only to start with) and do a few games related to step/skip to reinforce the understanding of the concept of these two intervals. ‘Doing’ always seems more meaningful than verbal explanation, and most of all, you can save time!

Obviously, these types of exercises and games I mentioned above are overlapping with introducing how to learn to read notation. At the time of working on these concepts, my students don’t have music to learn from notation just yet but they have a plenty of tunes to play by rote or ear. That’s another thing, without being comfortable with an instrument of your choice to play a few tunes well, you’ll probably struggle to get better at sight-reading as well. So, it’s important that your playing skill is there before start working on sight-reading!

In the meantime, why not try to see if you can train your eye to ‘catch’ quickly stepwise/skipwise motions in the printed music. And play them on your instrument to work out how that feels under your fingers?

In PART III, I’d like to explore more about pattern recognition (visual) in relation to executing them on the instrument (kinaesthetic). Though, another invaluable skill not to be forgotten to develop is being able to ‘hear’ in your mind what you see (aural). This skill only comes in time when you learned and played enough repertoire and you have a wide range of melodic and harmonic shapes in your aural vocabulary so that some ‘guessing work’ comes into play. This is a topic I can talk about in another time in length.

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!

First of all, the obvious question is what sight-reading really is.

It is a skill where you play or sing as many correct notes with rhythmic values as possible without loosing the undergoing pulse and deliver some sort of musical sense from a written music score you haven’t seen before.

Suppose you’re given a new piece of written music, if you start reading by identifying each individual note and ignoring the rhythmic value, that’s not sight-reading. That act belongs to the process of ‘learning the notes’. Then what does sight-reading actually involve? In sight-reading, you don’t have time to learn the individual notes before you play what’s written. Sight-reading skill depends on how quickly your brain can process the patterns you see on the score into certain hand/arm movements, which are picked up by fingers. So, the first thing you need to do is to change the way you see the series of notes at a time. I say, ‘pattern recognition’ is the first and the most important elements in developing sight-reading skill.

So, what does pattern recognition mean? It’s basically recognising the distances (or intervals, in a technical term) between a series of notes. But to get there, firstly you need to be able to clearly ‘recognise’ whether the note you see on the stave is either a space note (a note sits between 2 lines on the stave, or dangles down from a line, or sit on a line) or a line note (a line goes through a note) as quick as you can.

You could start by picking up any written music you have and test your quick recognition skill. Let’s say, let your eye pick and follow only the line notes from the beginning to the end of the music. You don’t need to identify the name of the notes, just recognise the pattern of the note. Does your eye follow the line of notes smoothly without stopping? If not, no worries. It’s just that your brain is not used to process the information in a new way yet. All you need to do is to train it by doing this drill over and over until you get used it, and then you eventually speed up quite significantly. This sort of game-orientated drill is very useful. (Dr. Kawashima might call it, ‘sight-training’!) It doesn’t take much of your mind strength, so you can do it even when you’re tired. In fact, it actually wakes up your mind, as you’d notice. For that reason, I often do a similar drill game with my very young pupils. So, in my teaching practise, sight-reading skill building begins after a couple lessons in before they can even read music! I have this set of cards (about 25) I made which look like this:

line-space notes

What do you see here? Some cards have one note; line or space note. Some have two notes; only line or space notes. Or both.

As an example, here’s how I do with my young pupils:

Stage 1
I hold the cards, and show one card at a time and let them ‘say’ which kind it is, line or space note. (To start with, I use the cards that have only one note, then two notes of the same kind mixed in later on)

Stage 2
Now pupils hold the cards and place them one by one into 2 groups onto the floor, one side is for the line notes only, the other for the space notes. For the first time, saying which kind it is (this is to check if they say what they meant, sometimes brain thinks the right thing but it comes out wrong) and the second time, without saying which kind it is as they place each card onto the floor. Remembering to put the cards in the correct places as they go along is another organising skill, which is worth developing.

Stage 3
I mix in another kind of cards, which have both line and space notes. I call these cards ‘odd one out’. And do the same drill as in Stage 1 & 2. In making the card into 3 groups, I ask them to put the ‘odd one outs’ in the middle. And when they get better at it, I time it with a stopwatch to show how quickly they can finish the game. This definitely brings their focus level up and usually speed up significantly!

This game-orientated drill seems like a trivial process but it’s actually helping to develop a reflex movement of muscles linked to visual input. That’s one of the very basic elements you need to possess to be able to sight-read efficiently.

In part II, I’m going to talk about the next stage of learning how to sight-read, ‘recognising the intervals’. Still no real ‘reading’ (naming the notes) involved there yet!

I thought I’d share with you something that worked for one of my intermediate piano students. He had a problem with playing parallel passages in time with both hands. The left hand was not catching up with the right hand and couldn’t seem to control the speed!

paralle passage

So, I asked him to swap the hands’ position – hence crossed-handed. To start with, it was like a mind twister. Your right side brain is connected to the left hand, your left to the other hand. Suddenly swapping the order seemed to get his less dominant brain side started to take control!

When he swapped his hands’ position back to normal, the problem was gone!

Would you like to try this method? Although it may freak you out for a few seconds? It may be worth a while! Sometimes, all you need is to learn to ‘see’ things from a different angle to fix the problems.