Learning and practicing scales at the keyboard can be relatively easy and enjoyable with the aid of some simple visual aids. Yet music students often feel daunted with the learning of scales, chords and arpeggios, thinking that they are either difficult, unnecessary, time-consuming or irrelevant.
Difficulties for students are most often seen when first trying to cross fingers over/under for piano scales and especially when playing both hands together, trying to remember which fingers to use and which white/black notes and more.
Practising scales plays an essential part in developing skills with the sense of key and pattern acquired through familiarity, speeding up the learning of new pieces, developing aural awareness and increasing familiarity with the geography of the instrument.
From my perspective and personal background, I have always felt that scales, chords and arpeggios are very important for finger dexterity and a better understanding of analysis of musical compositions, particularly with regard to modern music. Yet some teachers put technical exercises somewhat in Read more…
“I got rhythm…Who could ask for anything more?” – Ira Gershwin
Teaching rhythm to students is a real challenge. Some just “pick it up” naturally and others need, in the words of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, “hitting with the rhythm stick!”
So if you have a theory student preparing for an ABRSM exam (or similar), what can be done to inspire them to write a good rhythm worthy of a full 10 marks?
Tip 1: “Follow my leader!”
I like to switch my metronome on at around 80 BPM or better still, I’m now using “Drum Beats+” on my iPad. This really easy to use app generates drum loops. A favourite preset of mine is “Phat N Hairy 90,” probably because it describes me quite well! The age I mean!!!
Firstly, I clap or beat out on a percussion instrument a Read more…
It’s amazing how much can change in a year. I just returned home from the 2015 Music Teachers National Association conference in Las Vegas. When I asked a roomful of teachers to raise their hands if they owned an iPad (yes, I’m partial to Apple products), there was a forest of proud hands. I’m not sure that would have been the case last year. It seems more and more music teachers are favoring the user-friendly device and realizing that apps can truly enhance their teaching. As the app world can be overwhelming, it’s good to start with those that are recommended by others. That’s how I developed this list below. These are just a few of the many that I integrate regularly into my teaching. I’ve listed only two or three per category and omitted some favorites to keep the list reasonable. To view a more thorough directory of apps for your digital tool box, click here. Links are included but prices are not as they fluctuate frequently. I’ve included a brief sentence on how I use each one or links to posts with further explanation. If the app is available for other operating systems, I’ve indicated that with an asterik.* Read more…
How can I impress on my students that music is for life? Few sports can be played into later years. But music is for life. A job might be fulfilling until retirement. Music is for life.
I’ve started a master class series in which I’ll invite elderly musicians to share their music and their stories.
Martha Nelson shares why music is for life
The first was Martha Nelson, a drummer/singer/pianist/accordion player who entertained in all-girl bands in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Martha practicing accordion
Martha sang weekly on the Jerry Blake Show for Madison, Wisconsin’s WKOW TV its first year on the air.
Martha Nelson about to sing on WKOW-TV Madison, WI in the 1950s
She passed her music on to her daughters, who are both working musicians (and one of whom is yours truly). She drummed for our family’s dance band through the 1980s.
Martha played several pieces for my students (including the Glenn Miller hit “In the Mood”), and shared the story of how she got her start. She went all the way back to her mother. Grandma planned to travel to the U.S. from Sweden to join her husband. She was booked to sail on the Titanic. But her first-born, my Aunt Vicky, got sick, and they had to wait. Mom told my students their teacher wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.
She taught herself piano. One of ten children, her dad brought a drum home one day, handed it to her, and told her that would be her instrument.
Now at 89, she still plays piano and sings. And one can often see her foot going or hear her fingers tapping in true drummer fashion.A year ago she joined me singing in a coffee shop—and I gotta tell you, she’s still got it! Her voice hasn’t really aged. Music helps keep her young.
Yeah, play it!
After Martha’s presentation, my students entertained her. The final song, by Chris, was—“My Heart Will Go On”—the theme from the movie Titanic!
Dane & Chris
Ava, Sam & Sara, seated
Music is good for many things: for background, for relaxing, for accompaniment to shopping or working,
for inspiration, entertainment, making a living,
passing on to another generation,
Passing the gift of music on to the next generation and the next…
and enjoying—from the womb till one’s final breath and into eternal life.
After you received your undergrad music degree, performed a stellar recital of the classics, turned in that
lofty thesis, passed a professional accreditation exam or somehow earned shiny, new initials behind your name, you probably felt a great sense of achievement. Perhaps you felt like I did? After I received my Master of Arts in Piano Performance and Pedagogy, I felt my career was professionally wrapped up and ready to launch. Although my intent is not to discount the importance of the academic achievements listed above, I’m wondering if you–like me–had your bubble burst, your box tipped upside down and your bow unraveled when you entered the real world of piano teaching? Yes, I could play and teach Beethoven and Ravel, I could design a sequential curriculum for early learners but when asked to read from a lead sheet, my skills fell embarrassingly short. Read more…
Each year I’ve observed that students are increasingly unfamiliar with the carols of Christmas. It’s important to me to introduce them to as many as possible, and to enable them to entertain or accompany their families and friends with songs of the season.
Many of them start practicing Christmas songs as early as October. I decided to make Carols of Christmas the subject of our December group master classes.
I chose a Christmas instrumental CD to play as they arrived, and we gathered around my kitchen table for snacks. Food makes everything friendlier! I decided to treat them to sparkling grape juice, which most had never tasted. There was also lemonade and apple cider, grapes, cookies, candies, chocolate-covered pretzels…
While they snacked, I read them stories of several carols’ origins.
I found a number of activities about the carols of Christmas at brownielocks–scroll to the bottom for more.
My biggest challenge was to find those that could apply to a wide range of ages.
I tapped the beginning rhythm of a number of carols. Even the youngest students were able to participate and guess song titles. Of course, I knew what they’d been practicing, so made sure to use those pieces to give them a good chance.
I also sang the first few notes of a carol, without the rhythm, just to see if they could guess—they did pretty well. For more mature students, I had a Carols of Christmas fill-in-the-notes game. I’d give them a few measures of a carol, leaving out a few notes or a measure or two. They could fill in the missing parts.
There were activity pages concerning lyrics of Christmas carols. “Where would you go to hear silver bells?” “Who danced with a silk hat on his head?” Some questions read more like jokes, but all of it got them thinking more deeply about songs they may hear while shopping, but haven’t focused on. Talking about lyrics brought up the meaning and history of words or phrases usually heard only once a year: deck the hall/don we now/noel/gloria/yuletide…
For a final touch, I had bent some sparkly pipe cleaners into treble clef shapes, and set out a variety of beads that they could thread onto the pipe cleaners, and either keep or give away as tree ornaments.
I’ve had reports from various parents how fun it is to hear their children sharing the carols of Christmas with their families.
How do you introduce Christmas songs to your students?
The UK composer Elena Cobb has been busy recently!
Hot off the press is her latest book for complete beginner pianists entitled “My Piano Trip to London.”
Printed in full colour landscape, the first thing you notice is a sticker page that children will love using when they complete each song.
Each of the 17 songs represents a different London landmark or icon, giving a nice opportunity to engage the pupil in conversation outside music and then to relate it back to the lesson at hand. It’s quite an adventure to embark on with the pupil as you work your way through the book, from the Royal Albert Hall, to the London Eye, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben to mention but a few.
Over the years I’ve seen piano methods that contain lots of detailed instructions and exhaustive advice that quite frankly nobody bothers to read. Elena Cobb has really struck the balance I think in keeping each page clean and simple so that the teacher can do their job but also providing concise facts and tips that will be useful and enjoyable. I laughed to myself when reading Read more…
Playing a musical alphabet game is a great way to reinforce the concept of reading music. Younger piano students also love to do any activities ‘off the piano bench’, don’t they?
Alphabet Game for Piano
Teaching the Musical Alphabet
One of my favourite piano games helps my beginner students to learn the musical alphabet using a set of foam letter blocks.
I encourage them to trace over the letters, put the letter blocks in the correct order, place them one at a time on the piano keys (having picked them randomly from my bag) octave by octave – students see how the letters can be read backwards through the alphabet. These are only a few of the ideas that could be used.
One of the biggest challenges students face when playing guitar is learning how to strum correctly. They usually have a favorite song they’d love to learn how to play but when they sit down to try and figure it out it just doesn’t sound right. Every time they try it, the strum sounds all herky-jerky instead of smooth and flowing. Sound familiar?
Before we get started, be sure to open this PDF: Keys To Strumming, which I’ll be referring to throughout this post. If you’re wondering what chords to play during this lesson, click here to use any to use any of the common-tone chord shapes I wrote about.
THE QUARTER NOTE BOUNCE
It’s fairly easy to teach a student how to play the quarter-note strumming pattern in Fig. 1 (Keys To Strumming PDF). All you have to do is play a down-strum on every count (or beat). Every time you strum down, you count 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. But there’s really more going on here. Once the down-strum is played, you have to lift your hand back up to prepare for the next down-strum, right? This down-up movement of the strumming hand is more accurately represented by eighth notes. Look at Fig. 1 again. The arrows above the staff, hovering over each down beat and up beat, represent those eighth notes. In other words, you should be counting “one and two and three and four and” as you strum down, up, down, up, etc. This steady down-up strumming movement is what I call The Quarter Note Bounce. Read more…
Group classes are a great way to reach more students, multiply your time and promote your studio. I taught a group vocal class over the summer (Group Classes) and a group guitar class. Find the first two guitar class posts here (Group Guitar part 1 ) and here (Group Guitar part 2).
What I cover in weeks 5-8:
-how to tell the key of a song
-transposing, review how to make your own chord charts, and the 3/4 strum
-the “Happy Birthday” song. You’d be surprised how many accompanists I’ve met who can’t play it!
-another parody I wrote for this class, with only 2 chords, to the tune of “Clementine”. This one I personalized with their names and some positive traits:
1. In a church one sultry summer, round a table sat The Six: sore fingers, sore brains, but they strummed their acoustics.
2. Guitars ready, keep it steady, press your fingers till they bleed. Making music is so fun! What more in life could you need?
3. Play the 2/4, play it over and over again. “Almost got it,” says the teacher, “Take a little rest.” But then…
4. …comes another even harder, will we ever get it right? Now the strings are out of tune, but do I loosen or turn it tight?
5. There is Jerry, always ready, and Malea’s cheerful grin, Leslie’s great dry sense of humor; Robin says, “Play it again.”
6. Asia strums and Doris hums and Gavin, fearless, forward goes. By the end of this guitar class, every one of them will be pros!
What I choose to review and for how long depends on how they did at the last lesson, and what I think they need:
-the 4/4 strum and appropriate songs
-a demonstration that 2/4 and 4/4 strums can be interchangeable
Note: whenever I introduce new chords or strum, I choose songs with as few chord changes as possible. I aim for a good mix of musical styles and tempos.
I sing the melodies until they can. Sometimes I say the strum aloud: DOWN, downup downup downup—and we pause at the chord changes until they have their fingers in place. Once most have the hang of it, I make sure to do parts of the songs slowly and parts quickly to accommodate all class members. It’s equally frustrating whether you can’t keep up, or you’re being kept from going as fast as you are able, so I do some for both.