Monthly Archives: November 2012

Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme – First Steps

Following on from my introduction to the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme

When a student starts with me, I assess them and choose a tutor book to suit their age, learning style and prior experience.  Many of my young starters, age 5 and 6, will start with My First Piano Adventures Book A.  Children aged 7 and over will usually use Piano Adventures Primer.  Both of these schemes start “off stave” and teach by intervals rather than with thumbs fixed to middle C.

Once my students have settled into lessons I introduce them to the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme.  The stars are colour coded and go up by level and the first level is “First Steps” which is white.  This is for students who are just starting piano and I would expect them to be working through a Primer level tutor book.  This level should take them up to the point where they have been introduced to the stave.

Which essential musical elements do I work on with beginner students?


As soon as their first lesson I will start singing with my students.  With the younger ones I use songs from Jolly Music using notes 5 and 3 on the major scale, or so-mi in solfa.  Rain Rain Go Away also works.  It creates a descending minor third which is the easiest interval to sing because children use it in the playground.  Remember ner ner ne ner ner? Ideally I want them to sing too but recently I have had some resisters.  With these students I’ve decided to keep singing myself and not ask them to sing back. I’m hoping soon they will just start singing with me!  With these songs we can start to train their aural skills – a subject for another blog!

Learning outcomes for pitch

  • The student can listen to two melodic examples and identify if they are the same or different
  • The student can identify, by listening, which of two notes (large interval) is higher or lower
  • The student can identify in which direction a melody is progressing
  • The student can play a so-mi song on black keys or a chime bar

Pulse and rhythm

Again using songs from the fabulous Jolly Music we will work on pulse.  We clap, march and bang a djembe along to music,  or singing or chanting.

Learning outcome for pulse

  • The student can march and clap along in time with their teacher

Dynamics and articulation

Dynamics are great fun to learn on the piano.  Especially for little ones.  They love doing monster forte sounds and little mouse piano sounds.  These activities also really help their sense of pitch as you can play high mouse sounds and low monster sounds.  Introducing them to dynamics helps them make their simple pieces so much more interesting without the needing to know very much theory or technique.

Learning outcome for dynamics

  • The student can identify, by listening, whether a melody is played forte (loud) or piano (soft)


I love the  My First Piano Adventures Books for young children because they introduce good piano technique in such a fun way.  Here is a video showing one of the authors, Nancy Faber, teaching a child a rounded hand shape with the rhyme Stone on the Mountain.  Of course we also talk about the little mouse that lives under our hand.  We wouldn’t want to squash him!!  I get the students to name the mice!

Learning outcome for technique

  • The student knows that they should play with a rounded hand shape

Scales and chords

It’s hard for 5 year old beginners to get their fingers round five note scales.  I do get them on the “Key Skills” level scales as soon as they are able, but in order to get their sticker for “First Steps” I only expect them to play with one finger.  To tie in with the Piano Adventures method I ask them to use finger 2 or finger 3 and brace it against their thumb.  Like the A-OK sign.  This helps them to use their fingertips and prevents their first  knuckle collapsing.

Learning outcome for scales

  • The student can play pentascales in the keys of C and G using one finger


I don’t start students on formal theory books until they have completed the “First Steps” level.  However key elements such as the time value of notes and keyboard geography can be introduced before the student starts learning on the stave.

Learning outcomes for theory

  • The student can identify the white notes on the keyboard
  • The student understands crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves
  • The student can identify Middle C on the stave

Sight reading

In “First Steps” I don’t include any specific sight reading targets.  These start in “Key Skills”.  However we can prepare for future sight reading targets by clapping the rhythm of their pieces.

Improvisation and composition

I discover many new books and resources from my online colleagues.  The world wide web is a wonderful thing.  One such resource is the Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book.  I don’t use the book much, but the CD is wonderful!  It has backing tracks for practising pentascales to and also backing tracks for improvisation.  At this point all I want the student to do is try.  They can use any notes they like and just start playing.  The results aren’t always pretty but we’re fostering an environment where there is no wrong answer and that having a go is the most important thing.  I take the same attitude to composition.  If they have played a piece they particularly like then I might suggest they write their own version.  Sometimes we use an event like Halloween or a particular weather or animal to inspire their composition.  They notate it as a picture – in any way they like.

Learning outcomes for Improvisation and Composition

  • The student has improvised, using any notes, over pre-recorded tracks
  • The student has attempted to compose their own melodies

What’s next?

Once the student has gained a sticker on each point on their white “First Steps” star they get to keep their completed star.  They also get a certificate and a report which shows how they’ve progressed over the period and a summary of all the skills they’ve gained.  For children this is a really big deal.  It’s a long journey to Grade 1 on the piano and these certificates enable them to show they are progressing. Many of the children take them into school and have them awarded in assembly in the same way as other children have swimming badges and karate certificates.

They then get very excited when I hand them their red Key Skills star and proudly stick it to my music room wall.  The learning outcomes for Key Skills can be found in this blog post

Les Miserables

Frustratingly I’m going to London to see Les Miserables in the West End just as the new film is being released!!  I’m desperate to see the movie too so I guess it’ll be Les Miserables overload!!

However what I didn’t know, but I do thanks to the voicecouncil blog, is that all the actors in the film are singing live!  Normally for a musical film, all of the songs are pre-recorded in the studio sometimes months before filming starts. But with Les Mis they are all recorded live on set. This should result in a much more naturally acted performance.  They are not fixed to the tempo and style choices they made in a clinical studio, but they have the freedom to really act out their songs.  Each time they record will be different and the director will be able to choose his favourite take.

Now I’m looking forward to it more than ever!  What are your thoughts?

Here’s a clip showing how they did it

Singing in tune – Step 1 – Speaking

What do you do if your student or child can’t sing in tune?

I wouldn’t point it out to them.  It’s really very common, about 50% of my students come to me with quite major pitching problems.  Pointing it out may embarrass them and possibly put them off singing altogether.  Of course if they are aware of the problem then don’t pretend it’s not there.  Instead make a fuss of their ability to spot it, as many can’t even tell!

So in a business as usual fashion you can try some of these exercises to help.  You can say they are exercises to improve pitching but you don’t need to tell them the extent of the problem!

Semitones are really hard to pitch. Asking a beginner to sing semitones is like asking a small child to start fine drawing before they can do massive scrawls. They are hard to identify aurally and to replicate. This difficulty makes diatonic octave scales (normal scales) quite hard to sing in tune because they contain semitones.

So what exercises can we use?

Use your speaking voice
Firstly find out their natural speaking pitch by asking them to count down from 20 to 1. The natural speaking pitch will appear as you approach 1 but not ON 1 as they all drop their pitch to finish the count. You should centre pitching exercises around and above this pitch.

Find a rhyme they like and get them to speak it on a boring monotone at the same pitch as their natural speaking pitch.  Copy their pitch as best you can.  Sometimes when they hear you speaking they alter their pitch and it can be a bit of a chase!  Also if they are an adult male and you are a woman you may not be able to comfortably pitch at their octave.

Next repeat the rhyme adding some pitch shape to the rhyme but still using a speaking voice. See if they can copy your shape.

Repeat this with different rhymes for variety.  If they struggle with this task then you could try saying a line in two ways and see if they can tell if they were the same or different.  Get them to change the pitch shape and then copy their shape.  Sometimes do it differently and see if they can tell you if you copied or changed.

Fun rhyme for older children and adults from NYCOS Go For Bronze

Coca Cola went to town
Pepsi Cola knocked him down
Doctor Pepper fixed him up
Changed him into Seven Up

Once this has been mastered you’ll be ready to try gliding.  But that’s Step 2 so watch this space!

What do you do with students who can’t sing in tune?  Why not share your thoughts below?

Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme

No single piano tutor book covers everything you may want to teach to your students. In order to produce a well-rounded confident and competent musician you will invariably have to supplement your favourite scheme with other activities.

How do you decide which areas to include and how do you track progress?  Here’s my way.

When a student starts with me, I assess them and choose a tutor book to suit their age, learning style and prior experience.  Many of my young starters, age 5 and 6, will start with My First Piano Adventures Book A.  Children aged 7 and over will usually use Piano Adventures Primer.  Both of these schemes start “off stave” and teach by intervals rather than with thumbs fixed to middle C.

Once my students have settled into lessons I introduce them to the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme.

These stars are colour coded and go up by level, eventually tracking the skills that are examined by all of the major UK examination boards.  Many students decide not to do exams but those who do will find that the supplementary tests are very familiar, whichever board they take.

So we start with First Steps which is white.  This is for students who are just starting piano and I would expect them to be working through a Primer level tutor book.  This level should take them up to the point where they have been introduced to the stave.

The next level is the red Key Skills.  These students will be learning their first 5 notes on the treble and bass clefs.

The next level is the orange Initial star.  By this point, unbeknownst to the student, we will be looking at the level of aural, sight reading and improvisation that would be found in an Initial level exam such as Trinity Initial, Trinity Rock and Pop Initial or Rockschool Debut.

The subsequent levels track the grade system, so yellow is “Level One”, green is “Level Two” and so on.

More often than not my students progress through these activities faster than their playing skills progress through their repertoire and tutor books.  It is great that their aural and theory skills are ahead of their playing skills because it results in a more mature approach to their pieces.  Of course if they do decide to do an exam, they will find the supplementary tests incredibly easy.

Working through each star is so much fun.  Each child has two posters of their star.  One on the wall in my music room and one in their book bag.  Each of the points of the star represents a different area and when they prove their competence in each area they get a special sticker on the point.  Once their star is completed they get a certificate along with a written summary of what they have achieved and they move onto the next level.

The points on the stars

  • Pitch
  • Pulse and rhythm
  • Dynamics and articulation
  • Technique
  • Scales and chords
  • Theory
  • Sight reading
  • Improvisation and composition
  • Performance

If you are interested, why not check out my description of the First Steps level.  Or why don’t you comment on this post with your own ideas?

Book Review – Jolly Music for Beginners

“Jolly Music for Beginners” by Cyrilla Rowsell and David Vinden

This book is a comprehensive classroom scheme for Early Years and KS1 classes to teach singing and musicianship using the Kodaly Approach. I haven’t tried the scheme with school-age groups.  However I’ve used it to good effect with pre-schoolers and on a one to one basis with my younger piano students.

Many of the songs in this book are also contained in “Songs for Singing &​ Musicianship Training” by David Vinden and Yuko Vinden.  This is an excellent reference book for the Kodaly Approach and solfa, and has lots of songs in it slowly increasing in complexity. However with Jolly Music the songs have been made into a full scheme of work with detailed lesson plans and audio CDs. You can also buy a Big Book to go with it.  I love it and so do my children.

If you’re new to the Kodaly Approach and want to learn yourself then it’s not the best resource since each book only covers a small amount of content. However it’s great for identifying creative ways to be repetitive with the skills and information.  You could use it without a deeper understanding, or gain your personal understanding elsewhere and then use it to help your teaching.

Have you used Jolly Music?  Or perhaps another Early Years scheme.  Why not share your thoughts below?

Backing tracks for singers

There are several places you can get backing tracks for singing.

My personal favourite is Karaoke Version.  They sell great quality backing tracks which you can download immediately.  They have versions with the lead vocal lyrics, with just the backing vocals or instrumental only.

Students learning the song aurally can benefit from the lead vocal version.  If you are singing with backing vocalists or in a group then the version with no backing vocals is vital.  However, if you are singing solo but want the backing vocals then they are available too.

You can also download the tracks in a different key, up or down two semitones.  Great if you’re trying to adjust the song to suit your tessitura (your comfortable range).  However, just a warning, this works best if you use the instrumental version.  If you change the key of a track with vocals on then it might sound a bit odd!

For those who need to change the key by a larger interval Karaoke Version also shows you other available versions covered by other artists.  Often other artists have used different keys and these other backing tracks can get you closer to your ideal key.

Karaoke Version also allows you to customise your track.  You can see each instrument on the track, including backing vocals, and select those you need.  You can download any combination as many times as you like.  This is great if you also play another instrument and you want to play along.  It’s also really useful for isolating a particular line if you’re trying to analyse the song, to learn the backing vocal line for example.

The only problem with Karaoke Version is sometimes the track you are looking for is not available. Especially if you’re after a musical theatre number.  In that case I look to my second choice which is Amazon.  The problem with Amazon tracks, and iTunes, is that you can only listen to a small sample of the track and that’s often not enough to find a track without backing vocals. Also there are loads of tracks that look like they are from different companies but they are actually the same track.  So I spend a lot of time trying to listen to all the options.  Spotify is a good resource to help with this problem as you can often find the tracks on there to preview.  Amazon tracks are slightly cheaper but they are often a poorer quality.

If you do use Amazon and want to change the key then it is still possible.  Just check out Changing Key with Audacity.

Why don’t you comment below with your backing track experiences and clips?

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