Category Archives: Theory

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


Scale Challenge Level 1

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

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

Most of my beginner students start with the Piano Adventures Primer. Chapters one and two are dedicated to off-stave playing, using the black keys of the piano. However in Chapter 3 the musical alphabet is introduced. There are a couple of pieces to introduce all of the letters of the musical alphabet and then we’re onto C major position.

The first piece to use C major is C-D-E-F-G March. To prepare for this I teach the student the Right Hand C major pentascale.

What techniques are we trying to develop with this scale?

1) Round hand shape. All of a sudden, this demand for a round hand shape is more clear! After all, without it we’d be struggling to reach the keys with our thumb!

2) Steady sense of pulse. We need to slow the tempo right down to encourage a nice steady beat within the scale. We may need to revisit the rhymes and songs we learnt earlier in the curriculum to understand the sense of pulse.

3) Stop those floating fingers! Whilst we don’t want our students fingers stuck to the keys, we also don’t want them floating around in the air while they wait for their turn to play! Some students will approach this challenge visually. They can see their fingers are floating! Others may respond aurally. We can show them that the sound of the scale is more even when the fingers are closer to they keys, we don’t get that sudden bump as they come flying down!

4) Smooth legato? Well we haven’t yet covered legato (smooth) playing yet, so most students use a detached articulation. Having said that, I don’t discourage a smooth sound if the student is naturally tending that way.

What theory are we learning with this scale?

1) Home note.  At this point I introduce the concept of the Home Note. Otherwise known as the tonic or key note. In C major this is a C but we can’t assume our students will understand that. Gentle and regular reminders that the lowest note of our scale is our home note is needed. Don’t allow them to assume it’s the thumb or the starting note, as this will cause problems when changing key or changing to the left hand.

2) Key of a piece. From now on, the key of the pieces in Piano Adventures can be determined, even though there are no key signatures yet. More often than not they will be in C major. I always ask the students what the home note of their piece is. In a scale it’s the lowest note, but in a piece this might not be the case so instead we look at the end of the piece. The piece finishes on the home note. Therefore the key of the piece is the scale with that home note. OK, so that isn’t always the case, but at the moment it is. Don’t just ask your student what the key is, they will habitually say C. Instead ask them how they know what the key is. At this stage I don’t worry too much about major or minor.

Close behind is the Left Hand C Major Scale

Now we are pleased that we didn’t associate the home note with the thumb because of course the left hand uses finger 5! I find some students have trouble with their left hand scale if I introduce it too casually. Instead, we make sure we have the right hand very secure, understanding that the pitches we need for the scale are always C D E F and G. Then I ask the student to place their left hand over their right hand and then whip away their right hand. This leaves the left hand in exactly the right position for the C scale. One more potential obstacle, make sure they start the scale ascending from the home note and don’t start a descent from G! Once that is established we can jump the scales around the keyboard to different C major positions.

Introducing G Major

Timing the introduction of the G major scale is dependent on the student. If you’re not careful, and even if you are, a student can misunderstand and think that they can play a G scale by keeping their hand in C position and starting on the G. To reduce this problem we spend a lot of time bouncing our hands from C position to G position and back again, both with the right hand and the left hand. Some students get it straight away, others need regular reminding. If your student struggles with this then pre-empt it before you ask them to do the scale. Don’t try and test them to see if they remember. Do the bouncing first, as a warm up, before asking them to play. Each time you try and test to see if they can do it on their own, your risking them failing, and you’re also watching them play it incorrectly. This incorrect playing is subconsciously being learnt!! Better to prepare them and see them achieve! It will be far more beneficial in the long run.

So How Does the Scale Challenge Work?

Level 1 of the scale challenge requires the student to play C major and G major pentascales, hands separately. As the teacher, you are in control of which scale they learn and when. At this point you will place a tick in the “Learnt” column next to the relevant scale. When the student is at home, if they believe they have cracked that scale and are ready to be tested then they put a tick in the “Ready” column. Then in the lesson they must play it correctly, first time, with a good hand shape and steady beat in order to receive a sticker in the “Tested” column.

This method puts them in charge of their assessment. They are keen to practise because they’re itching to get to Level 2! However, you are not asking them each week “Have you learnt it yet?!”

Here is my Level 1 sheet. I don’t usually hand it out until I’m almost ready to teach G major. I want Level 1 to feel achievable. It is on later levels where the student will feel more challenged.

Scale Challenge – Level 1

Modes On The Piano

One of my students is studying for his Grade 4 Rockschool Piano.  As part of the technical exercises required for the exam, he must play two octave scales, hands together, in a variety of keys and modes.

He must learn Ionian (major), Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Aeolian each starting on C, G, F, D and Bb. Phew – and that’s just for starters!!

This post isn’t to discuss the theory behind these modes, nor the theory behind asking a student to master them. This blog post is to share some resources I created to help him learn them.

After much thought, and this will be different for each student, we decided that he needed to learn them by exception.  So for each key, he will learn the major scale and then learn the differences needed to turn that major scale into each of the modes required.

So for example if C major is


then for Lydian we just need to sharpen the 4th to make

C D E F# G A B C

I have created some scale sheets to show how to create each mode from the major (Ionian) starting point. Note I haven’t included the key signatures for each mode as we decided that learning the key signatures was an unnecessary distraction – instead he is just learning the exceptions or accidentals.

Another point of interest is my positioning of the Dorian scale. I deliberately moved that from it’s usual second place, down to the bottom as it has a minor flavour so I felt that, if learning by exception, it was easier to relate it to the Natural Minor (Aeolian) rather than the major.

I hope you find these interesting and useful. I have deliberately omitted any fingering so that the student can define their own. If you are still struggling to master these, or any other scales, then you might be interested in my post on Learning Scales Using Keyboard Shapes.

Modes on C imageModes on GModes on D

Modes on F imageModes on Bb image

Even Better Note Reading Practice

Back in March I blogged here about a great site by Ricci Adams for note reading practice.

You can create note reading games and send them to your students.  They can play them on their pc at home (actually they have iphone apps too but I haven’t looked into these – since I don’t actually have an iphone!!).  You can tailor them to the student by selecting the note range they are practising and there’s no mindless copying of exercises – each one needs the student to engage their brain!!

Well Ricci has recently updated her site and you can now customise your exercises in far more detail.

Customisation options

  • choose treble clef, bass clef or other clefs but instead of the “both” option the students can see the grand staff which is a lot easier and more realistic for pianists
  • choose the range of notes to test
  • choose to limit to line notes or space notes.  This is great for students just encountering the higher and lower notes as spaces and training FACE or All Cows Eat Grass.  Not all my students use these acronyms but those who do can find it difficult to identify the “in-between” notes and now you can separate the two
  • opt to have the FACE and ACEG notes labelled to help beginner students
  • choose the key signature for more advanced students
  • choose letter names, scale degrees or solfa
  • choose whether the next question is immediate or needs selecting.  Great in the lesson if you want to discuss the answer
  • opt to hear the note sound, which is great for sight singing practise

All these choices enable much more flexibility and I’m thrilled with them.  I already use these games with my students but now I can better target the areas that need developing.

The students can play the games at home and then report back with their score.  I tried it with my son, age 6, and he kept on playing, and playing, and playing!  Well that can’t be bad can it!?

The website provides so much more than just note reading.  For beginners it can test them on their keyboard geography.  For more advanced students it can test key signatures, intervals, chords.  There are also aural tests for recognising chords, scales and intervals.  I think I’m going to be using this site over and over!

For the second time this year – thank you Ricci Adams.

Theory and Note Reading Practice

My students love music theory!  I know!  I can’t believe it either.

I have to thank the authors of the wonderful books I use.  Lina Ng and Ying Ying Ng (no relation) have both produced beautifully illustrated sticker books for young (and old) pianists to learn theory.

Finding the right theory book for a student can be tricky. For 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.

But what happens when they need extra practice?  You can’t photocopy the pages for them to do again, because apart from contravening copyright law, it’s a bit demotivating!  In the past I have created my own worksheets, but after the joys of the beautifully illustrated sticker books they don’t really want my scrappy worksheets!  Each student has different needs so I do use their manuscript books to quickly mark out some exercises.  However, if you watch the students doing these repetitive exercises, they tend to work out the first couple of answers and then just copy across the rest.  Hmmm, not ideal.

But wait a minute – I’ve just discovered a fabulous new website created by Ricci Adams.

You can create note reading games and send them to your students.  They can play them on their pc at home (actually they have iphone apps too but I haven’t looked into these – since I don’t actually have an iphone!!).  You can tailor them to the student by selecting the note range they are practising and there’s no copying!!

Here are a few exercises I have created for my current students

Key Skills – Bass F to Treble G
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


Initial – Bottom C to Top C
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


Level 1 – All stave notes
Treble Clef –
Bass Clef –
Both Clefs –


The students can play the games at home and then report back with their score.  I tried it with my son, age 6, and he kept on playing, and playing, and playing!  Well that can’t be bad can it!?

The website provides so much more than just note reading.  For beginners it can test them on their keyboard geography.  For more advanced students it can test key signatures, intervals, chords.  There are also aural tests for recognising chords, scales and intervals.  I think I’m going to be using this site over and over!  Thank you Ricci Adams!

2012 Exam Successes

Congratulations to all the Express Yourself students who braved the world of examinations this year.  I’m so proud of all of you.  We know it’s the taking part that counts…. but you all passed too!!

Here’s the breakdown

  • Grade 1 Popular Music Vocals – Distinction (London College of Music)
  • Grade 1 Popular Music Vocals – Merit (London College of Music)
  • Grade 2 Popular Music Vocals – Distinction (London College of Music)
  • Grade 2 Popular Piano – Distinction (Rockschool)
  • Grade 3 Popular Piano – Pass (Rockschool)
  • Grade 4 Popular Music Vocals – Distinction (London College of Music)
  • Grade 5 Popular Music Theory – Distinction (London College of Music)
  • Grade 5 Popular Music Theory – Distinction (London College of Music)
  • Grade 6 Piano – Distinction (Trinity College London)
  • Grade 8 Popular Music Vocals Performance – Distinction (London College of Music)

Roll on 2013!

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