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”)

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

How much practice should I do?

Here’s a great video from Pamela Frank who talks about how much practice she thinks you should do.

Clearly she’s not talking about Primary School beginners – but the advice is still relevant. Be smart and efficient when practising! Don’t just play your best bits over and over!

Fun Piano Game for Beginners

Well it’s half-term holiday in the Russell house and the weather is rubbish. What better time to trawl the internet for fab music games to play with my boys.

My younger son Matthew is 5. He’s been playing around with the black key songs in My First Piano Adventures and he knows where C, D and E are on the keyboard. My elder son Adam is 7. He’s been playing for a few years now and is a confident reader. I’m going to need a game that will work well for both of them. Not too hard for Matthew nor too easy for Adam.

First stop – as always – is Susan Paradis’ amazing site. Always loads of fun games, composition activities and pieces. Especially for pre-readers! Straight away I found an adorable game she calls Save the Turkey. It’s been designed for the US holiday Thanksgiving, but since we don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK then we have no problem playing it in February!!

Save The TurkeyYou can take a look at her site to see the “proper” rules for the game. However, I thought I’d share my adaptation.

The set comes with a Turkey card, two “Skip a Turn” cards and seven keyboards, each with a different key highlighted. You can download, print and cut out the cards here.

Firstly, we got rid of the skip a turn cards, they didn’t go down well at all with Matthew!! Secondly we put the Turkey at the bottom of the pile (actually Matthew “looked after” the Turkey – he has been a bit poorly this week!!). We made a pile with the rest of the cards and left them face down.

My Rules: Each player took it in turns to take a card from the top of the pile. Each player had different tasks to do with their cards. Matthew just had to find the key on the piano and play it. Adam had to name the pitch, draw it on the stave on my whiteboard (you could use manuscript paper), then find the key on the piano.

As the game progressed I was able to stretch each of the boys. For Matthew he started naming the pitch if it was C, D or E. Then we talked about “counting” up the alphabet to get F and G. A and B were a stretch but at least the concept has been introduced to him. Matthew also “helped” me when it was my turn! For Adam he was tasked to draw the note on the whiteboard, but in more than one octave. When he played it on the piano he had to match the octave to the ones he had drawn. If your child or student isn’t very confident with writing yet, you could find a piece they’ve been playing and ask them to find the note on the page.

I did think one set would be a very short game so I printed two copies – however, in retrospect I think a couple of short games with a number of winners would have been better. We managed to play for 30 minutes though, which I was really pleased with.

Thanks Susan!!

Get Set Piano Book 1 Review

I am a piano teacher and also a Kodály fan. I incorporate the Kodály Approach into my piano lessons. We sing and chant Jolly Music‘s traditional playground songs and we use actions to define pitch and pulse. I have gorgeous little mouse and snail puppets for investigating tempo and I use them to help children understand how crotchets and minims relate to each other. As we progress, the students play the Jolly Music songs on the black keys by ear. Starting with so-mi songs and moving to so-mi-la, then do-mi-so etc.

But what have we here!? A brand new tutor book? Get Set Piano by Heather Hammond (of Cool Clarinet fame) and Karen Marshall.

I saw a copy at the Music Education Expo 2014 earlier this month and liked the look of it but didn’t have time to dig deeper. Then another piano teacher asked what I thought of it. They thought it looked good so I bought a copy of Lesson Book 1 and the Pieces Book 1.

It arrived this morning and I sat down to trawl through it. To my amazement it is choc-a-block full of the rhymes and songs that I use. Including many I also use with my singing students from National Youth Choir of Scotland’s Go for Bronze musicianship scheme (also a Kodaly resource).

Get Set Piano goes much faster than some US based methods but perhaps an older beginner, especially one with prior musical training, could get on quite well with it. There is a free teacher guide online, as well as quite a few additional pieces.

What I will certainly do with Get Set Piano is have it in my bag. I think once the students have played their songs on the black keys and I have exhausted the song’s musicianship and ear training potential then I think they will enjoy seeing them in this book and having a go. We could even use them as sight reading material and see if they recognise the songs as they play!!

I am always on the look out for nicely presented, gently progressive books and pieces to make the transition from Piano Adventures to the UK exam board system. Get Set Piano Book 1 is too elementary to meet this need, but in two weeks time Get Set Piano Book 2 is published and you can be sure I’ll be first in the queue to buy a copy and that might certainly make the grade, as it were, for my students! I’ll be sure to let you know!

Saying Goodbye

I recently said goodbye to a much-loved long-term student. The separation was my own suggestion and I feel terrible about it.

This morning I read this blog-post by the amazing piano teacher, performer and composer Diane Hidy. It has made me cry a little. I wanted to share it, and persuade you to look through some other of Diane’s wonderfully written posts.

http://dianehidy.com/teaching-tips/2012/12/9/shes-a-professional

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

C D E F G A B C

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

Examination Rules: How Many Hours Practice Does it Take?!

A great article from Elissa Milne demonstrating the amount of practice needed for healthy progression through the grades. Notice that she recommends 200 hours practice between the first lesson and Grade 1. So when you ask if your child is ready for Grade 1 yet, just bear this in mind. And remember that the time investment pre-Grade 1 will pay dividends later.

Elissa Milne

One of my ‘rules’ for a while now has been that students need to do at least 100 hours practice to get from one grade to the next. My assertion is that if you managed a B/merit in your last exam then another 100 hours practice will get you to a B in your next exam. If you want to guarantee a B+ you’ll need to do 120 hours, and if you want to guarantee an A/distinction  you will need 140 hours. Of course, if you only manage 75-80 hours practice you should be only just able to manage a C!! But if you achieved an A/distinction result in your previous exam then 100 hours (or not much more) should deliver you an A result in your next exam too.

I was chatting about this with Samantha Coates (Ms BlitzBooks!) and she was sharing anecdotal evidence she’s been gathering…

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