Monthly Archives: December 2012

Express Yourself Vocal Scheme – First Steps

Following on from my introduction to the Express Yourself Vocal Scheme

From the very first lesson I start my singing students on this scheme.  I start with the First Steps level for students who may not be confident with pulse, rhythm or pitch.

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

Pulse and Rhythm

I start all my singers off with the Go for Bronze scheme published by National Youth Choir of Scotland.  It’s a wonderful scheme for children which uses solfa and the Kodaly Approach to teach notation, theory and sight singing.  The first four “lessons” cover the fundamentals of pulse and rhythm.  Of course depending on the student this could take anything from two lessons to eight or more.  It teaches the student how to feel the pulse of rhymes and chants.  It also covers the difference between pulse and rhythm and introduces crotchets and quavers, although at this point the student is not introduced to those terms.  In keeping with the Kodaly Approach it uses the rhythm names “ta” and “te te”.  By the end of the section the students can read the rhythms using stick notation, which is basically the stems and beams of crotchets and beamed quavers without the note heads – genius!

Learning outcomes for pulse and rhythm

  • The student can march and clap along in time with their teacher
  • The student can describe and demonstrate the difference between pulse and rhythm
  • The student can clap the rhythm of a phrase from stick notation
  • The student can clap the pulse of their repertoire along to the original recording (with help)


Go for Bronze then moves onto pitch.  Just two pitches initially (so and mi = scale degrees 5 and 3).  Along with the hand signs they learn to identify which is higher and lower and they map out a song.  These pitches create a minor third and, sung descending, this is the easiest interval to pitch. Just listen to playground taunts and nursery rhymes like Rain Rain Go Away. The students start training their aural skills with these pitches and I don’t add any additional pitches until these are accurately sung.  Students who still have trouble with these pitches will also work on other exercises that I describe in my Singing In Tune blog posts.

Learning outcomes for pitch

  • The student can sing a so-mi pattern in a key of their choosing
  • The student can demonstrate the hand signs for so and mi
  • The student can sing a so-mi melody with rhythm using stick notation


My technique bible is Singing and the Actor by Gillyanne Kayes (referenced as SATA).  If you want to learn more about good technique then I highly recommend you read the book and attend a Vocal Process retreat where Gillyanne herself takes you through the techniques in the book.  I’m not exaggerating when I say this retreat was invaluable to me and my teaching.  Of course the book covers way more than “First Steps” so here are my priorities.

Learning outcomes for technique

  • The student can warm up their bodies effectively to prepare for singing (SATA Ch.4)
  • The student can demonstrate good breathing technique using the elastic recoil (SATA Ch.4)
  • The student can warm up their modal voice (speech quality) using voiced fricatives combined with the elastic recoil
  • The student can warm up their higher pitches with gentle sirens (SATA Ch.1)
  • The student can attempt to siren their repertoire


Our work on range is less about the achievement of the student, and more about information gathering. There are a number of facts that I need to know in order to choose appropriate repertoire, reasonable starting notes for pitch exercises and to identify areas to develop.  The answers to these questions will vary as time goes on as a result of the work we are doing, and the age of the student.  So these questions need to be revisited again and again.  Future scheme levels won’t make reference to these but they will remain throughout the lessons.

Outcomes for range (to be revisited regularly)

  • The teacher has identified the fundamental speaking pitch of the student
  • The teacher has identified the preferred “so” for the student
  • The teacher has identified the comfort range of the student and their preference for thick or thin vocal folds
  • The teacher has identified the working siren range of the student
  • The teacher has identified the gear changes of the student
  • The teacher has identified the cambiata of the student (male only)

What’s next?

Once the student has completed each area in First Steps they move onto Key Skills.  Of course sometimes they’ll excel in one area and I certainly don’t hold them back while we get all the areas up to the same level.  Remember this is just a framework.

Look out for my blog post on Key Skills.  If you teach piano you may be interested in my Piano Scheme.

Sight Singing with Go For Bronze

When you teach popular vocals, students learn new repertoire by ear.  Often there is no sheet music for a song, or if there is, it doesn’t match the detail of pitch and rhythm that you hear on a recording.  The side effect of this is that students can achieve a very high level without learning how to read music or sight sing.  As a piano teacher too, I wasn’t happy with this.  I wanted my singing students to be as knowledgeable as my piano students regarding theory and notation.

I had heard about solfa and The Kodaly Approach through a variety of sources and it really interested me.  When I started teaching musicianship to Early Years children I had used a resource called Jolly Music which is based on The Kodaly Approach and written by leading members of the British Kodaly Academy.

I really enjoyed using Jolly Music with the little ones, so decided to start using solfa with my singing students. None of them read music and often found it hard to pitch correctly when singing repertoire. Using solfa helped them sing penta-scales and octave scales in tune and I also used the so-mi, so-mi-la, and so-mi-do nursery rhymes found in Songs for Singing &​ Musicianship Training by David Vinden and Yuko Vinden.

However, I wasn’t sure if I was using the approach effectively.  Yes I saw an immediate improvement but I had so many questions.  I was using the key of C and transposing aurally to suit their voices.  I didn’t know when to mention that “so” doesn’t have to be on a line, and can be in a space. Or even on another line. If I just stuck with C they wouldn’t have a clue how to sing in another key.

I knew I should do some proper Kodaly training but I just couldn’t at the time.

Luckily I managed to get some excellent advice from some Kodaly specialists.  My main error was to give the students music with a clef.  If you remove the clef you can immediately start to move “so” around the stave so they don’t associate it with a particular pitch.  And you aren’t asking them to sing inaccurate pitches because it’s only the clef that fixes the pitch!  Light bulb moment number 1!

Light bulb moment number 2 – someone has already written and entire scheme of work for children!!  It’s called Go for Bronze by National Youth Choir of Scotland, followed by Go for Silver and Go for Gold.  It is amazing!  It’s transformed my singing teaching and has influenced my piano teaching too.  And the typical teenagers I teach on a weekly basis love it.  Without exception!  You can see how I use these resources in my vocal scheme blog.

Go for Bronze has one large teacher’s book and two levels of student book.  They’re aimed at children aged 7 up.  They make up a scheme of work aimed at singers and are a great way to teach singers how to read music. They’re split into lessons and each lesson has a double page spread in both the student book and the teacher book. The teacher book has a picture of the lesson book page and is surrounded by teaching tips.   You can either get the teacher book (expensive but recommended) with the full explanations, or get the student book (cheap) and take an educated guess.

I haven’t done a Kodaly course (yet) and I’m sure that’s the best way to learn about solfa and Kodaly.  However, it is possible to use these books without that prior knowledge.  One day when I do the course I’ll report back, shame faced, and admit how much I still don’t know!

Edit (12th April 2013) – I have finally been able to attend a fabulous residential course run by the British Kodaly Academy.  I enjoyed it so much and was relieved to discover that I’ve been teaching my students correctly.  But as with everything you learn, it just makes you realise how much MORE there is left to learn!!  I will blog about the course in more detail soon.

Express Yourself Vocal Scheme

With piano and other instruments there are numerous tutor books to help teach your student progressively. However, with singing there is a distinct lack of resources. In order to produce a well-rounded confident and competent musician you will need to develop your own curriculum.

Let me introduce my curriculum

When students start singing lessons with me they can be any age with varying levels of musical ability. Some students arrive with a terrific ear for music and can sing convincingly. Others cannot sing in tune or in time. How can one system suit all those students? The answer is, it can’t. My curriculum is just a framework. Within the framework I jump all over the place, much more than I do in piano lessons. My experience and professional judgement help me to identify the target areas for my students and I do that without holding them back on their areas of strength.

With my Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme each student has their own coloured star poster on my wall, representing the level they are working at. 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. At present with my singers I haven’t gone down this route. The curriculum is still split into levels but I don’t show it to the students in the same way. In singing, each curriculum area is a continuum so doesn’t lend itself to being “ticked off” in the same way.

So we start with First Steps. This is for students who are just starting lessons and who won’t necessarily be confident at pulse, rhythm or pitch.

The next level is Key Skills.  These students will be learning how the stave works and be starting to understand how their voice works.

The next level is Initial.  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 Rock and Pop Initial.

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

In contrast to the piano scheme, my students’ ability singing repertoire is often more advanced than their abilities in these areas. Spending time on these essential musicianship and technique skills is really important.  It will create well rounded musicians, prepare them for future singing exams or GCSEs and also prepare them for higher education auditions.

Areas covered by the curriculum

  • Pulse and rhythm
  • Pitch
  • Technique
  • Range
  • Dynamics and articulation
  • Expression
  • Scales
  • Theory
  • Sight reading
  • Improvisation
  • Performance

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

Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme – Key Skills

For the students who’ve completed their white First Steps star on the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme it’s now time for red!!  I hand them their red Key Skills star and they proudly stick it to my music room wall.

Piano Key Skills Star Chart

In the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme the stars are colour coded and go up by level.  The red Key Skills star is the second in the scheme and it is for students who are just coming to the end of their Primer level tutor book.  They will have been introduced to the stave but not necessarily be confident music readers yet.

So what do I consider to be Key Skills?


There is a fabulous game in Jolly Music called “Stand Up, Sit Down” using notes 1, 5 and 8 on the major scale, or do-so-do’ in solfa.  Using ascending so-do’ you sing Stand Up (along with an arm movement) and the student stands up.  Using descending so-do you sing Sit Down (along with an arm movement) and the student sits down.  It helps to train their ear to recognise pitch direction.  Eventually you can remove the lyrics or the hand gestures and ultimately both so they are reacting purely on the pitch.  Either with you singing doo doo, or using the piano or a chime bar.  It’s great to swap roles as well.

Learning outcomes for pitch

  • The student can play Stand Up, Sit Down without any lyrics or arm gestures
  • The student can listen to two pitches and state if the second is higher, lower or the same
  • After listening to a melody, and being shown several written options, the student can select the melody they have heard
  • The student can play a so-mi-la song on black keys or chime bars

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.  At this level I will be expecting the student to be able to keep a steady pulse without my help.  For some students this is very difficult.  Some can cope with marching but not clapping.  For others it’s the reverse.  The key is plenty of practise and plenty of variety.  When they understand the concept, we can introduce tempo.  At this point there are no tempo changes, it remains static throughout a piece or a rhyme.  We use simple english terms like fast and slow.  There are plenty of examples in Jolly Music of rhymes and songs we can sing at different tempos. We discuss what an appropriate tempo would be for the pieces from their tutor book.  I play their pieces for them at different tempos, sometimes this can be funny, and they choose which they prefer.  Sometimes their preference doesn’t match the title or lyrics of the piece and that can result in interesting discussions.

Learning outcomes for pulse and rhythm

  • The student can march and clap along to a steady pulse on their own
  • The student can demonstrate a steady pulse at a slow tempo or fast tempo
  • The student can track written music being played by their teacher and identify which note their teacher has stopped on
  • After listening to a rhythm, and being shown several written options, the student can select the rhythm they have heard

Dynamics and articulation

Students who have completed their First Steps level will know how much fun it is to play forte and piano.  They should be able to identify whether a piece they are listening to is forte or piano.  Now it’s time to prove they can apply this knowledge to their repertoire.  It may be the whole piece is played at one level.  Or perhaps they are already at the stage where their pieces show a dynamic change.

Learning outcomes for dynamics

  • The student can identify, by listening, whether a melody is played forte (loud) or piano (soft)
  • The student can play their pieces with appropriate dynamics, when reminded


Now the students have moved past My First Piano Adventures or the Primer and onto the main Piano Adventures series they get a Technique & Artistry book to accompany their lesson book.  It covers technique in a fun way.  Firstly with technique “secrets” which are referenced throughout the book.  Secondly with fun exercises that complement the pieces in the lesson book.  Finally there are artistry pieces where the student is encouraged to play with musicality and feeling.  Even though the technique book covers more, at this stage I focus on good hand position.

Learning outcomes for technique

  • The student knows that they should play with a rounded hand shape
  • The student knows that they should play using their fingertips and side edge of their thumb

Scales and chords

When I started teaching, I didn’t attempt scales with my younger students because of the thumb tucking and finger crossing.  What I didn’t realise was the benefits that can be gained from using pentascales (five note scales).  Initially inspired by the exercises I found when researching Christopher Norton’s American Popular Piano series I started teaching these scales to my students.  Then, thanks to an online forum, I discovered the Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book.  In this book the students do a pentascale pattern which combines the scale, arpeggio and triad.  The advantage of this pattern is the book comes with a CD with some fantastic backing tracks to practise the patterns to.

Another tricky scale to master is the chromatic scale.  I realised that it’s getting past those white note semitones that makes it difficult.  So at this level I introduce what I call a Chromatic Starter.  It starts on F and goes up to B and then returns to F.  The student can practise the thumb and finger three pattern without getting stuck on the “gaps”.

Learning outcomes for scales

  • Using separate hands the student can play a scale, arpeggio and chord pattern in the major keys of C, D, E, F, G and A, from memory without prompting
  • Using separate hands the student can play a chromatic scale between F and B


Finding the right theory book for a student can be tricky. For very young students I use Ying Ying Ng’s Music Theory for Young Children which is a set of four colourful sticker books which take them from understanding left and right hands, to Grade 1.  For older children and adults it is a bit more difficult.  If they are happy with the sticker books then that’s great.  If they are competent then starting them on Ying Ying Ng’s Music Theory for Young Musicians – Grade 1 is good.  A problem arises when they think the sticker books are too young, but the Grade 1 book is too fast.  For those I use Lina Ng’s My First Theory Book which is a set of three books but doesn’t quite cover everything needed for Grade 1.

Learning outcomes for theory

  • The student can idenfity and name the treble and bass clefs
  • The student can read the notes C to G in the treble clef and G to C in the bass clef
  • The student understands crotchets, minims, dotted minims and semibreves and their rests
  • The student can identify and follow repeat marks
  • The student understands the time signatures 4/4 and 3/4

Sight Reading

While the student has not yet become a confident reader, sight reading work isn’t always possible.  After all, their main pieces are only at the level of the most basic sight reading exercises.  However pulse work (see Pulse and Rhythm above) and clapping rhythms on sight are good preparation for future sight reading.

Learning outcome for Sight Reading

  • The student can clap the rhythm of pieces they haven’t played before

Improvisation and Composition

In First Steps and above in Scales and Chords I introduced you to the Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book.  So I won’t bore you again!  But now the students are learning their pentascale patterns they can use them over the book’s improvisation backing tracks.  I want the student to be brave enough to make mistakes and give it a try.  As they progress we discuss the satisfaction of finishing on the tonic note. This satisfaction crosses over to their compositions too.  I encourage the students to write their own melodies based on the season, or a piece they’ve enjoyed playing.

Learning outcomes for Improvisation and Composition

  • The student has used their scale patterns to improvise 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 red “Key Skills” 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.  A great milestone on the journey to Grade 1 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 orange “Initial” star and proudly stick it to my music room wall.  The learning outcomes for “Initial” will be a topic for a future blog post.

Have I missed anything?  Why not add a comment!

Learning Scales using Keyboard Shapes

Learning scales is one of those essential skills that many piano students hate.  Some students have no trouble.  Many are fine to start with but start to come unstuck as the number of scales to learn increases.  Others have trouble from the start.

Some teachers use scale books produced by exam boards and others, which show the score of the scale along with fingering.  Personally I can’t glance at the score and get a good enough impression of the notes and fingerings to play fluently.  I prefer to imagine how my fingers fall on the keys.

I used to just rely on letters and numbers written in my notebook.  You know the type

C D E   F G A B C
1 2 3   1 2 3 4 5

But as the number of scales increased it started to become unwieldy and still didn’t give me the visual picture I needed.  Then I discovered that some people drew pictures of keyboards to write on – and I gave it a try.  Success!!  I loved it.

I learnt the remainder of my scales easily by creating a page of A4 with blank keyboards all the way down.  A three octave keyboard is the minimum needed to be able to show all necessary fingerings.

Blank 3 Octave Keyboard 

So for each scale that needed attention I wrote in all the fingering for each hand.  So for D major it would look like this

D Major Scale Shape

There are scale shape books that show all the scales for each ABRSM grade like Scale Shapes for Piano by Frederick Stocken.  Personally I found working them out and writing them out by hand was more beneficial.

I do try this method with my own students.  It’s hit and miss to be honest.  Some of them love it, others look in horror or confusion!  However, it’s good to have lots of methods up your sleeve!

If you fancy trying it out, then here’s a full page blank version as a pdf – Blank Keyboard A4 Page

What methods do you use to help your students remember their scales?  Why not comment below?

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