Monthly Archives: April 2014

Teaching syncopation – Five Little Speckled Frogs

In the Piano Adventures Level One lesson book is the great American standard L’il Liza Jane. It contains the classic syncopated rhythm syncopa. This is usually written as quaver crotchet quaver but since the Level 1 books haven’t yet introduced quavers, it’s written as crotchet minim crotchet.

I love this rhythm and it crops up again and again so I want to teach it effectively. I believe it’s important to experience the rhythm first, before showing students how it is notated. I suspect the Piano Adventures authors feel the same way. I suspect that every child in America is extremely familiar with this song. However, in the UK, not so much!

So my hunt began. I needed a song that UK children know really well, that also contains the same rhythmic motif. Then I remembered Five Little Speckled Frogs.

This song is perfect. Most young children know it, as they sing it regularly at playgroups, nurseries and early years music classes. For those who don’t know it, it’s also a counting song (we lose a frog each verse until there are no little speckled frogs left!). The benefits of this type of song are that we get 5 repeats without the children losing interest. So any children not totally certain before, certainly will be after they’ve counted down from five to none! Another benefit is that each of the six lines starts with the syncopa rhythm!

So how to teach it?

1 – Sing it! Sing it to the student with one hand showing the five frogs, sitting on your other hand, which is the log! Here are the lyrics to jog your memory.

Five little speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log
Eating some most delicious grubs, yum yum
One jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool
Then there were four green speckled frogs, glub glub
Four little speckled frogs etc…

Or you can hear it here

2 – Hopefully the student has joined in at some point during the song. If not, ask them to sing it with you or on their own if they seem confident.

3 – Ask them to focus on the first line. Can they clap the rhythm of the first line? Perhaps with you if necessary. Talk about the first half being quite jazzy and we call it syncopa.

4 – Next I will move off the bench and sit on the carpet if available. I pull out four flashcards with a variety of rhythms, including syncopa of course! Can they clap the rhythms? Allow them to choose which ones to clap. They will invariably leave syncopa until last, as it is least familiar. Can they identify which if the rhythms matches the jazzy start to the song? To download the flash cards click Rhythm Flash Cards – Syncopa.

5 – We can then have some fun choosing which two flashcards makes the rhythm from the first line. We can clap it, we can sing it, we can tap it, we can speak it with syncopa ta ta ta-a. As many different ways as possible to map the rhythm experience of the song with the visual representation.

6 – Depending on the maturity of the student I might now explain the term syncopation and how it describes a rhythm where the emphasis is on the off beat. I take the flash card with four crotchets and discuss which of the four beats are strong and which are weaker. Then we place it above each of the other three flash cards and decide which of them are syncopated. Only syncopa of course!

7 – Next I bring out the score for Five Little Speckled Frogs. I’ve written it in a very simple way. Two handed, five finger position with no hand movements, melody only. Students at Level 1 of Piano Adventures should have no trouble with the pitch recognition so all of their concentration can focus on the rhythm. Hopefully with all this preparation they will be able to play it quite easily.

8 – Finally, out comes the Piano Adventures book and they can find the syncopa rhythm in L’il Liza Jane. You can put the syncopa flash card up on the music stand for them to match if they are having trouble.

With careful practice (which I know all our students do!) they should be able to learn L’il Liza Jane fairly independently.

Here is my arranged score for Five Little Speckled Frogs. You are welcome to use it for your own students.

Five Little Speckled Frogs


Scale or Broken Chord Worksheet

Just a quick post to share a worksheet I have just created for my piano beginners. The aim is to give them practise identifying patterns in the music. If they are skilled at identifying scale or broken chord patterns, they will find them quickly in their repertoire.

Depending on the level of the student you can ask them to identify which scale or broken chord it is, and then see if they can play it! (They are all C, F or G major and don’t use ledger lines apart from Middle C – oh except I sneaked a D minor in at the end to see if they’re on the ball!)

Scales Broken Chords Worksheet

Musicianship – Slowly Slowly

I sing Jolly Music songs with my students from their very first piano lesson. We start with Cobbler Cobbler, which is excellent to help them understand pulse and subsequently crotchets (quarter notes).

Working through Unit 2 – “Basic Rhythms” of Piano Adventures Primer we soon come across minims (half notes). Beforehand, earlier in the lesson or perhaps during a previous lesson, we learn the rhyme Slowly Slowly.

Slowly Slowly is a sweet two verse rhyme with a tempo change. The first verse concerns a very slow snail that slowly slowly very slowly creeps up the garden rail. The second verse is about a faster little mouse that runs around our little house!

I start by asking the children if they can think of any slow animals. We might go through a few before thinking of a snail. We make snail shapes with our hands by tucking our thumb between fingers 2 and 3. We move our hand-snail slowly up our arm as we perform the rhyme. Sometimes I make my snail go onto my face and we giggle because it’s so slimy and yukky! Next we talk about faster animals, clues are often needed for this one! We make a mouse’s nose with our fingers and make them dash about our bodies!

The challenge for these rhymes is getting a sense of proportion between the fast and the slow verses. The children think it’s really fun to perform the slow verse really slowly and then the fast verse super fast. What we want is the fast verse to be twice the tempo of the slow verse.

I also have some gorgeous finger puppets from Wise Owl Toys. The children love to use these instead of their hands. They can have one on each hand and tap the pulse of the rhyme on their knee with the correct puppet. We can tap the pulse on the piano lid, on their heads, on the floor – anywhere they like! We can use these soft toys to jump along the keys of the piano from low to high, or high to low, with the correct tempo.

One of my more creative 5 year old students spent ages making up his own games with the keys and these little puppets. He had a race from one end of the keyboard to the other! The mouse could go fast but the snail had to go slow (he was the mouse!!) He also played hide and seek with them. He “hid” one puppet on a key and I had to “find” it with the other one, again using the correct tempo. Of course the puppets are quite big so we had to pretend they were hidden. His favourite part was when I’d almost “found” him but hopped straight past using the black keys. Hilarious for a 5 year old!

Of course, don’t forget the children can be the animals themselves! Get them down from the bench and walking, crawling, running around the room. Allow them to feel the freedom to start with, but eventually the fast verse should be twice the tempo of the slow one.

How does this relate to Piano Adventures?

At some point you’ll want to drag the children back to the boring old bench and draw them a minim. Now when we explain that a minim is like the snail and the crotchet is like the mouse – they can understand that minims are slower or last longer than crotchets. In fact they last for exactly twice as long!

They draw a row of crotchets (I like Nancy Faber’s little song – It’s got a head and a stem and it’s all coloured in, that’s what makes a crotchet!) and they can tap the mouse on each crotchet. Then of course a row of minims (It’s got a head and a stem but it’s not coloured in, that’s what makes a minim!) and the snail can tap along that. We can make a pattern of crotchets and minims (ta ta ta-a or ta-a ta ta) and use both animals to tap their relevant note.

I explain that we say ta for crotchets and we say ta-a for minims. We then spend some time immersing in the terminology by banging on the piano lid. We start with crotchets. Ta ta ta ta…. On the eighth crotchet I call minims and they must start tapping minims ta-a ta-a… Four of those and we’re back to crotchets. We can do this over and over until they get bored, I’m usually the first! When I tap ta-a I usually show a little pulse on the second beat “a” with my wrist. So it looks like tap bob tap bob. We can repeat this motion then when clapping. I find some children struggle with the clapping motion but find the piano lid achievable.

So when we look at the first piece in Piano Adventures that uses minims – The I Like Song – they have a deep understanding of what a minim is! Better than just saying “Look! That counts for two!”

Once they have confidently learnt Slowly Slowly and Cobbler Cobbler I will introduce them to my Solfa Challenge which starts at Level 1.

Musicianship – Cobbler Cobbler

I sing Jolly Music songs with my students from their very first piano lesson. The first song we do helps them understand pulse and subsequently crotchets (quarter notes). Working through Piano Adventures Primer we cover this work during Unit 1 – “Introduction to Playing” and it leads directly onto the work in Unit 2 – “Basic Rhythms” on crotchets.

This first song is the two pitch song Cobbler Cobbler. It’s my favourite song for teaching a sense of pulse. The children pretend to hold a shoe in one hand and a hammer in the other. They bang their fist in time with the pulse of the song. We then hold the hammer in the air; place the “shoe” on the ground; swap the hammer into the other hand; and pick up the shoe again. We can then repeat the song using the other hand.

They love it! We can use it to explore tempo as sometimes the cobbler is very tired and goes slowly, or he might be running late and need to go fast. Of course the children go so fast that their steady pulse goes out of the window! But they’re having fun and we can tone it down and discuss the different tempos still have a “steady beat”. We can also march around the room to this song or play a simple pat-a-cake game. All great ways of feeling the concept of the steady beat.

Sometimes I use the terms pulse and steady beat interchangeably. We talk about our own heartbeats and I make the children laugh by tapping out a random jazzy “heartbeat” and shout “Quick, call an ambulance!!” A healthy heartbeat is nice and steady and our songs need a healthy heartbeat too. Explaining that the doctors can feel your heartbeat by finding your pulse brings in the term pulse quite nicely. They can rarely find their own pulse so we often have to “call an ambulance” for them too! They find this hilarious!

How does this relate to Piano Adventures?

Once they’ve got the hang of the concept of a steady beat we can take a look at Chapter 2 of their Piano Adventures Primer. It introduces crotchets. Now when we say that a crotchet is worth one beat, they know what a beat is. It’s still quite abstract though, so I get them to draw a row of crotchets across a small whiteboard and they tap each one across the board with a steady beat. We sing our Cobbler Cobbler song as we tap.

We can tap the pulse all over the place! On the piano lid, on our knees, on our noses, nod our heads. Anything we can think of. Especially anything they can think of! The more ideas and repetition the better. One of my students wanted to tap his eye – not sure about that!! I suggested eyebrow and he seemed happy enough!

I had one student who found tapping a steady pulse almost impossible. We tried everything from marching around in my garden to nodding heads. One day, almost by chance, I asked her to try tapping fingertips on her chest but keeping the heel of her hand fixed to her body! Hooray! She still can’t clap or march but she can make that very small movement needed to understand the pulse. All other motions were physically too complex.

I hope you find this helpful – please comment if you do, or to share your own ideas. The next post is about using the rhyme Slowly Slowly to prepare for minims.

Using Jolly Music In Piano Lessons

I have been asked to describe how I use children’s songs and rhymes in my piano lessons. Which songs do I use? When and for what purpose?

Cyrilla Rowsell and David Vinden’s Jolly Music is a comprehensive classroom scheme for teaching singing and musicianship using the Kodaly Approach. As members of the British Kodaly Academy, they advocate singing to develop musicianship in adults and children, in musicians and total beginners.

I have used their songs and rhymes to great effect with small groups of pre-schoolers. However as a piano teacher I don’t see why the pre-schoolers should have all the fun!

As a piano teacher I love the Piano Adventures Method. It starts off-stave on black keys, eventually moving to the white keys but remaining off-stave.  It gives a marvelous introduction to the exploration of pitch. It helps the students develop an understanding for how the keyboard and position on the page relate to the aural feedback.  Of course this can be done on-stave too but the stave is an unnecessary complexity at this stage. I would rather nurture their musicianship than their note reading.

This off stave approach is perfect for introducing the Jolly Music songs.

I start singing from the very first lesson. The first song I teach them is the two pitch song Cobbler Cobbler to teach a sense of pulse.

Express Yourself Piano Challenges

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 Challenges.

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.

Working through each level is so much fun.

I am in the process of writing blog posts for each level of my challenges. As I complete each one I will add a link here.

Scale Challenges

Express Yourself Scale Challenge – Level 1 (C and G major pentascales – hands separately)

Level 2 (C, G, A and D major pentascales, broken chords and block chords – hands separately)

Level 3 (C, G, A and D major and minor pentascales, broken chords, tonic triads, thirds and transposition)

Level 4 (All prior exercises hands together, plus B major octave (RH only), C and Am octaves hands separately)

Solfa Challenges

Express Yourself Solfa Challenge – Level 1 (learn simple rhymes and so-mi songs)

Express Yourself Solfa Challenge – Level 2 (Part 1) (using stickers and glue to create pitch and pulse pictures)

Express Yourself Solfa Challenge – Level 2 (Part 2)

Express Yourself Solfa Challenge – Level 3 (create pitch, pulse and rhythm pictures with so-mi songs)

Level 4 (introducing singing names, hand signs, rhythm names and stick notation for so-mi songs)

Level 5 (adding the new pitch “la” and combining solfa with stick notation)

Level 6 (adding the new pitch “do” and introducing the stave)

Level 7 (adding the new pitch “re”)

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