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!


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