Monthly Archives: May 2013

Express Yourself Vocal Scheme – Key Skills

Following on from the Vocal First Steps we move onto the second phase in my scheme –  Key Skills

We continue to work through the excellent Go for Bronze for musicianship and sight singing, introduce anatomy, further elements of vocal technique and use repertoire to further musical maturity.

Pulse and Rhythm

For students working on Key Skills we continue to practise reading and writing rhythms using stick notation.  So far they have learned crotchets (ta) and quavers (te) but during Key Skills we also add rests and minims (ta-a) to increase the rhythm options available.  We play echo games where I clap a short rhythm and they echo it back.  We also use some simple songs like Cobbler Cobbler from Jolly Music to demonstrate tempo and also some call and response songs to practise keeping the feel of a constant tempo.  Of course any song can be split into lines to create this back and forth feeling.  It’s a great way to get students to sing solo without them feeling under too much pressure.

Learning outcomes for pulse and rhythm

  • The student can clap the rhythm of a known song and identify a song from the rhythm
  • The student can read and notate rhythms with stick notation
  • The student can take over a song without losing the pulse
  • The student can echo short rhythms
  • The student can clap the pulse of their repertoire along to the original recording


Key Skills for pitch is all about transferring the pitches so and mi onto the stave.  If so is on a line then mi is on the line below.  If so is on a space then mi is on the space below.  The students start to write the songs they have been learning onto the stave.  A third pitch of la (one tone above so) is also introduced.  These three notes open up so many lovely songs to sing from the Go for Bronze scheme and also from 3-4-5 note songs published by NYCOS.

Learning outcomes for pitch

  • The student can echo a mi-so-la pattern using hand signs
  • The student can sing a known song in solfa and identify a song from solfa
  • The student can read and notate songs on the stave


It is at this level I start to introduce an understanding of anatomy.  I use a combination of ideas from Singing and the Actor by Gillyanne Kayes (referenced as SATA) and images from the internet.  At this level I keep it simple.  We discuss the vocal folds and how they vibrate.  Using our lips to model the vibration and to show that it’s important to use the right amount of breath pressure and also blowing through an elastic band to get it to buzz.  The other term I introduce at this point is the soft palate (there’s a nice image on this site) and how it can move to create oral and nasal sounds.  This leads quite nicely from the work in First Steps that we’ve done on sirens.

Learning outcomes for anatomy

  • The student knows the terms vocal folds, breath pressure, soft palate, nasal port and vibrations
  • The student can open and close their nasal port with their soft palate


Most of my technique ideas come from Singing and the Actor but another great resource is Jenevora Williams’s Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults.  Jenevora’s book is useful when you’re teaching children as she has many valuable insights into the child’s voice from birth upwards.  She discusses what is appropriate technique for young and changing voices and has some great images to help with this age range.

Learning outcomes for technique

  • The student understands how false vocal folds create constriction and exercises to deconstrict
  • The student understands how and when to use their neck anchor/trap door
  • The student can model glottal, aspirate and simultaneous onsets


When teaching vocals, especially Pop Vocals, the students often come to their lessons with a list of songs they want to sing.  Often their choices don’t match their abilities and your ideas of where they need to focus their attention.  Rather than stop them singing their choices, I encourage it.  If necessary we have one song I choose and one song they choose.  It can be an eye opener to see how they manage with songs they really care about and know well.  Students who you may have judged to struggle with pitch or range can suddenly surprise you when they know the song inside out already.  Also, any song can be used to develop musicianship and interpretation.

Learning outcomes for repertoire

  • The student can clap the pulse to the original recording, backing track or accompaniment
  • The student can siren the melody
  • The student will discuss the meaning and emotion of the song
  • The student can identify the dynamics of the original recording

What’s next?

Once the student has completed each area in Key Skills they move onto Initial. 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 Initial.  If you teach piano you may be interested in my Piano Scheme.

Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme – Initial

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

In the Express Yourself Piano Star Scheme the stars are colour coded and go up by level.  The orange Initial star is the third in the scheme and it is for students who have finished their Level 1 tutor book. Depending on their playing level you may be in the early stages of preparation for an Initial level.  Exams at this level include Trinity Initial, LCM Step 1 or 2, ABRSM Prep Test, Trinity Rock and Pop Initial, and Rockschool Debut. It’s such a minefield of information so here is a blog post briefly covering exams.

So what do I include at Initial Level?


There are lots of different songs in Jolly Music that just use two or three pitches.  They start with so and mi, then add la or do.  Many you will recognise from childhood, some you won’t.  Other sources of songs with these pitches are Songs for Singing &​ Musicianship Training by David and Yuko Vinden.  Along with arm movements, with or without the solfa hand signs, the students develop their idea of high and low pitches.  Once they’ve learnt several of these songs, I challenge them to write their own with their own lyrics.  They can sing it first and then work it out on the piano using black keys, or vice versa.

To help the students sing the final tonic note of a melody I often play their pieces and don’t play the final note.  The student then has to sing the note.  It is important to establish the comfort range of the student and then ensure the final note sits within this range.  If not, then the student may have difficulty pitching it.

Learning outcomes for pitch

  • The student can play known do-mi-so-la songs by ear
  • The student can echo (singing or playing) short do-mi-so-la patterns with solfa hand signs
  • The student can identify if two melodies are the same or different
  • The student can identify which of three pitches is the highest or lowest
  • The student can sing the final tonic note from their pieces, songs or a new melody
  • The student can transpose a memorised piece (no black notes) for example Star Wars

Pulse and rhythm

The excellent musicianship scheme Go for Bronze has taught me a great new way of clapping the pulse. I had always clapped, and used a louder clap for the first beat of the bar.  But in Go for Bronze they clap and click.  The clap comes on the first beat of the bar and the clicks on the other beats.  If the student can’t click they can always tap their knees instead. It works so well because there’s more movement so they can really feel the difference between the beats.  And as a teacher you can see they’ve got the hang of it!

Learning outcomes for pulse and rhythm

  • The student can clap or clap and click a steady beat in three time and four time
  • The student can track written music being played by their teacher
  • The student can echo a simple rhythm
  • The student can clap the rhythm of a familiar piece and march the pulse at the same time
  • The student can create rhythm pictures of known songs and translate them into stick notation
  • The student knows the rhythm names for ta and te te and can read stick notation

Dynamics and articulation

At this stage students should be refining their dynamic control, and also their memory!  Hopefully at this point you won’t need to remind them beforehand, or use the high frequency phrase “That was lovely Jimmy, now try with …”!  They will also have started working on staccato and legato.  Some students will have been playing legato automatically, but those who have been playing detached will now need to learn two new techniques.

Learning outcomes for dynamics and articulation

  • The student can identify, by listening, whether a melody is played forte (loud) or piano (soft)
  • The student can identify, by listening, whether a melody is played mostly staccato or legato
  • The student plays their pieces with some dynamics and articualation without reminders


You may have noticed that there isn’t a technique point on the star charts.  This is because technique is an ongoing journey.  It’s harder to “tick it off”.  My students aren’t aware that there are milestones to achieve.  Where appropriate I do give them temporary targets.  We can cover technique issues through repertoire and technique exercises from their Piano Adventures Technique & Artistry books. However I also use scales exercises to practise technique.

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
  • The student knows that they should play with a relaxed wrist
  • The student knows that they should play staccato with a light hand bounce
  • The student knows that their fingers and thumbs should play evenly

Scales and chords

At Initial level the student will learn the same five note scale and arpeggio patterns as before, but now including minor keys and hands together.  As I mentioned in the technique section these patterns can be used for so many things.  They can play them staccato or legato to help with articulation control.  They can play them forte or piano for improved dynamics.  You can target hand position issues.

At this level I introduce the standard octave fingering for C major and A natural minor and also teach the octave chromatic scale.  I find teaching the chromatic scale in contrary motion can help with fingering.  First we learn them in one direction, outwards from D.  This is by far the easiest direction as you don’t have to remember whether it’s a thumb white note or a finger 2 white note.  Once that’s fully understood we add the inwards direction.  Still hands separately.  Of course we could teach C and Am in contrary motion too, to ensure the fingering in each hand matches.  You will need to judge that on a case by case basis but on the whole I use similar motion for diatonic scales.

Learning outcomes for scales

  • The student can play a pentachord scale and triad in the major keys of C, D, E, F, G and A, and the minor keys of Am, Dm and Em, hands together
  • The student can play an octave scale in the keys of C major and A natural minor hands separately
  • The student can play a chromatic scale in contrary motion from D hands separately
  • The student can identify a pentachord scale or triad as major or minor by listening


At this point many of my students are working on Ying Ying Ng’s Music Theory for Young Children Book 2. It introduces quavers and expands the known note range.  The main sticking point for students at this point is their speed of response for note reading.  Learning how to use FACE and All Cows Eat Grass is really beneficial but there are only so many worksheets we can produce.  Using online note reading games can really help the students with their reading – see my blog post on the subject.

Learning outcomes for theory

  • The student knows Middle C (C4) to C5 in the treble clef and C3 to Middle C in the bass clef
  • The student understands FACE and All Cows Eat Grass
  • The student understands quavers and their rests
  • The student understands tones, semitones, sharps and flats (but not as key signatures)
  • The student can notate the rhythm of known songs as stick notation

Sight Reading

Sight reading material will be dependent on the level of the student’s repertoire.  We want the sight reading to be much easier than the student’s main pieces.  Resources I use at this level are Improve Your Sight Reading Pre Grade 1 and Sound at Sight Book 1.  However if the student isn’t quite ready, the solfa work on pitch and rhythm helps lay the groundwork for sight singing and sight reading.

Learning outcome for Sight Reading

  • The student is competent at the sight reading examples for Trinity Initial

Improvisation and Composition

My main aim is for students to give improvisation and composition a good go.  We will do a number of activities to practise.  These include compositions based on their pieces, especially blues-based songs; more work with the Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book; creating answers to short musical questions on the black keys or using solfa; creating melodies from do-so baselines and adding do-so baselines to melodies.

Learning outcomes for Improvisation and Composition

  • The student has made a good attempt at composition
  • The student has made a good attempt at improvisation

What’s next?

Once the student has gained a sticker on each point on their orange Initial 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 their yellow Level 1 star to stick on my music room wall.  The learning outcomes for Level 1 will be a topic for a future blog post.

Have I missed anything?  Why not add a comment!

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