Category Archives: Singing

Solfa Challenge Level 1

I would like to introduce the first level of my Solfa Challenge.

All of my pre-Grade 1 students are working on one of the Solfa Challenge Levels.

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.

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.

The Kodaly Approach fits neatly with the off-stave Piano Adventures Method. I don’t tally my Kodaly activities directly with the pieces in the Piano Adventures books, rather they run alongside. However there are certain milestones where they intersect.

Solfa Challenge Level 1

The objectives of Level 1 are to introduce the children to the rhymes and songs that we will use in levels 2, 3 and 4. They will already know a rhyme and a song, as I introduce these during the first couple of lessons. I have written detailed posts on these songs already and you can find them here: Cobbler Cobbler and Slowly Slowly.

However in addition to these there are a few more rhymes

Soft Kitten Warm Kitten
Coca Cola Went To Town
Chop Chop Choppity Chop

The first objective of these rhymes at this level is to enable to children to feel the steady beat or pulse of the rhyme. We will perform the rhymes while clapping, tapping, marching etc. All the ideas from the Cobbler Cobbler blog. In addition Soft Kitten Warm Kitten in partnership with Chop Chop can be used to introduce the concept of dynamics – loud and soft.

There are also some songs

See Saw Up and Down
Hey Hey Look At Me
Up and Down
Cuckoo Where Are You?

All of these songs use just two notes a minor third apart. In solfa these are called so and mi. On a piano you could use G and E, F and D or D and B. Or indeed any of the adjacent black keys with the wider gap. However the easiest way of identifying the two pitches is to think of the playground taunt “ner ner ne ner ner”. Every child and adult will recognise that! It’s the easiest interval to pitch and is a perfect introduction for children to sing. Make sure you find a key that sits in their comfort zone. I usually take a guess around G and E, but then listen carefully and alter to suit if necessary.

To pass Level 1 the children just need to demonstrate that they know the songs and can perform them steadily – ideally from memory. I give them my Solfa Challenge – Level 1 Chart (this copy has had the lyrics obscured for copyright reasons) and they earn stickers to place in each circle as they have learnt each song or rhyme.

Once they are confident then we can move onto Level 2 where they have more pulse and pitch activities with each song or rhyme.

Here is part one of my guide to Level 2


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


Pop Choir

Helen’s successful Express Yourself Pop Choir is performing in their Winter Show in Worcester this Saturday along with Express Yourself Show Tunes Choir and Glee Club.

Why not pop along and see if you want to join us!!

Express Yourself Choir in Worcester


Come and sing popular songs with simple harmonies. There are no auditions and everyone is welcome regardless of ability.  It’s an excellent way to meet new people in a relaxed, friendly environment.

We rehearse on Mondays every week in term time at Lyppard Grange Community Centre, Warndon Villages, Worcester WR4 0DZ on Mondays from 7:30pm until 9:00pm.


All sessions are £4.50 if you pay per week but we have discounts for paying termly or monthly

How to Join
Just call Helen Russell on 01905 747827


What sort of songs do you sing?

All sorts of things. We all make suggestions and then vote for our favourites. We choose new songs at the start of every term so we don’t get bored of singing the same things all the time! In Pop Choir this year we have sung The Foundations, Amy Winehouse, The Righteous…

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Free Christmas Singing Game

I am doing some Christmas singing with the 20th Worcester Beaver Scout group on Friday. I wanted to do some Kodaly-based songs and needed them to be Xmas themed! So here are my alternative lyrics to Doggie Doggie Where’s Your Bone (a favourite with my own sons!) entitled Santa Santa Where’s Your Sleigh!

It uses a small toneset of so mi and la so makes it ideal for young primary aged children, especially those learning musicianship using the Kodaly approach.

To play the game you need at least three singers! Although I’ve done it before with two and a sock puppet (don’t ask!!). One is Santa, the guesser. They turn their backs on the other children. You choose one of the remaining children to “steal” the sleigh. At the end, Santa has to guess who stole the sleigh by identifying their voice, or position in the room. It’s clearly a better game with more children but my boys don’t seem to mind guessing between me or their brother!

The original game can be found in the brilliant Jolly Music for Beginners by Cyrilla Rowsell and David Vinden

Santa Santa Where's Your Sleigh-1

Free Nativity Song for Christmas

Here is a Christmas nativity song I wrote called Sleeping In A Stable. It uses the limited solfa toneset of do mi so and la. This is ideal for Reception/Early Years children (aged 4-5) or any child learning singing and musicianship using the Kodaly approach.

It could also be used in piano lessons. You could teach the child to sing the song, away from the score. Then demonstrate that they can play the melody by ear using just the black keys.

On the black keys the required keys are do = F#; mi = Bb; so = C#; la = Eb

On the score do = C; mi = E; so = G; la = A

The song would fit into the nativity as Mary and Joseph settle down in the stable.  They are not too impressed with their accommodation and are worried about getting to sleep with all the animal noises! You can alter the number of verses depending on which animals you want to add to the stable. I have included horses, ducks, hens, cows and dogs! I’ve saved the sheep to arrive with the shepherds later on!

Let me know if you use it!!

Merry Christmas!

Sleeping In A Stable

Understanding Microphones

There are so many different microphones on the market. If you’re setting up a home studio or want something to gig with then you’re going to need some knowledge before you make what could be a costly mistake.

As a vocalist, the two types of microphone that I use regularly are
– a dynamic microphone (Shure SM58)
– a condenser microphone (Samson C01)

All microphones are designed to take sound and convert it into an electrical signal. Devices that change energy from one form to another are called transducers. The different types of microphone convert the sound energy different ways. We don’t need to know the physics behind each type but we do need to know their strengths and weaknesses to be able to make the right decision.


Frequency Response
The human ear can hear sounds with frequencies between 20Hz (20 oscillations per second) and 20,000Hz. High frequency sounds are experienced as high notes and low frequencies are low notes. Each microphone has a chart showing its sensitivity at each frequency across the audible range, this is the frequency response. If you want your microphone to reproduce the audio input as closely as possible then you will want a flat frequency response microphone. If you want to use your microphone primarily for vocals then a tailored frequency response would be beneficial. Those designed for vocals will be more sensitive across the frequencies of the voice.

Polar Pattern
Microphones are more sensitive in certain directions. The polar pattern of a microphone shows you these preferred directions.

Phantom Power
Some microphones require additional external power in order to function. We call this phantom power (48V) and it needs to be provided by your mixer or audio interface. Those that do will have a switch where you can turn this power on or off as needed.

My Microphones

Shure SM58 (cardioid dynamic microphone)
This has a cardioid or directional polar pattern. This means that it is most sensitive to sounds directly in front of the microphone, and least sensitive at the back. For this reason it is useful on stage for vocalists as it won’t pick up the monitors or crowd noise in front of the singer and is less likely to cause feedback with the monitors. It also has a frequency response tailored to vocalists. It’s sensitivity is greater across the frequencies created by the voice. I mostly use this microphone on stage for vocals. It’s also pretty durable. You can drop it and it doesn’t seem to mind! Dynamic microphones don’t require phantom power.

Samson C01 (large diaphragm condenser microphone)
This has a hyper-cardioid polar pattern. This is similar to the cardioid pattern for the dynamic microphone. The difference is it doesn’t totally block the sound at the back. It picks it up, although not as strongly as at the front. It’s frequency response is designed to pick up multiple instruments and more accurately reproduces what it hears. It can still be used for vocals, but not on stage as it will pick up the monitors and other room noises and can create a feedback loop. If you do use them on stage to amplify drums then you will need to be careful not to feed the signal through the monitors. I use this microphone in the studio to record vocals and piano. Condenser microphones require phantom power.

Samson C01U (USB condenser microphone)
I have one more microphone that I use regularly which is a condenser microphone that doesn’t require separate phantom power. That is a USB condenser microphone. The model I use is the Samson C01U. It works in the same way as my C01 except instead of plugging into an audio interface or mixer, it plugs straight into your USB port. Levels have to be set on your computer but otherwise it works the same. The advantages of this are there is less noise in your signal because there are less connections and shorter wires. However watch out! Make sure you plug it into a high voltage USB port. I had no idea that the different ports on my laptop provided different powers and was upset my microphone seemed to be so quiet. After experimenting with the different ports I found that one of them works much better and gives me a stronger signal.


Cardioid Dynamic Microphones
Good for – vocals, stage work, durability, less feedback, no external power needed
Bad for – atmosphere, distant sounds, accuracy

Condenser Microphones
Good for – multiple instruments, studio work, accuracy
Bad for – needing external power, stage work, feedback, fragility

Changing Key with Audacity

I am often asked how to change the key of backing tracks for vocalists.

The simplest way is to purchase the track from one of the providers that allows key changes – such as Karaoke Version.  After you’ve purchased your track you get to alter the key by one or two semitones before you download it.  This site also allow you to download in multiple keys without additional charge.

However, this may not be an option for you.  Or perhaps you need to alter the key by a larger interval.

I use Audacity.  Audacity is a free, open source, cross-platform program for recording and editing sounds.

1 – Download it and install on your pc

2 – Import your backing track (File>Import>Audio). Watch out if you’ve downloaded your track from iTunes as Audacity doesn’t read iTunes files.  In this instance you will need to open iTunes and convert the file to MP3 first.

3 – Select the track and go to Effect>Change Pitch and select how many semitones you want to change it by.  Don’t forget to use minus numbers to change to a lower pitch.  Take a look at the Audacity Help Page for more details.

4 – Export your file (File>Export) and close Audacity (there’s no need to save the project file)

5 – This will create a .wav file which is rather large so I now open in iTunes and convert to MP3 (and delete the .wav file). [Edit – you can download an add-in to enable export as MP3 which is much smaller than .wav – find it here]


There are some limitations.  Tracks sometimes sound weird if you transpose by more than 3 semitones. And backing tracks with vocals on can often sound too distorted to use.  This varies on a track by track basis so give it a try.

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