A Step in Time Saves Nine

I was teaching ‘finger-swaps’ today in a piano lesson; something along these lines…

finger swaps

It was the last lesson of the day, and the young man at the piano had more or less used up all his brain-power for the day. He was getting more and more confused, less and less interested, and things were not progressing in any useful direction.

Looking round for inspiration, I found some weird piece of plastic lying on a shelf. I think it was the red bit from one of these hoppers that gets left behind once the blue bubble part gets broken.

Tobar Rock-n-Hopper Hopping Toy

Anyway, there it was, and I plonked it on the floor, stepped onto it, hopped to change feet, and stepped off, saying something along the lines of ‘finger swaps go like this…’.

He was only too pleased to have an excuse for abandoning the piano to hop on and off a plastic thingy.

After a couple of goes, I suggested he go back and try the exercise.

Result; complete comprehension of the ‘skill’ (that’s the word they use in football training) and he was able to do it with any pair of fingers, with either hand, with no problems and great enthusiasm.

Hours of explanation (I’m prone to exaggeration) and faulty learning and negative experience, all averted by the use of a broken plastic toy and a bit of large scale movement.

I’m sure something along these lines can be used in other instrument teaching as well.

Chatting birds


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Subdividing the Pulse – Movement

One of my piano teachers, the one that taught me through to my Teaching Diploma, was fanatical in demanding accuracy in subdividing the pulse. So much so, that when I heard a subway busker playing Bach on her flute, it took all my self-control not to stop and give her some hints about subdividing her crotchets, quavers and semiquavers with more precision. And as for church organists who don’t give the last note of each line of the hymn its full length…

Anyway, here’s how I have started this topic with my year 4 djembe class.

First of all, I had a track with a strong, moderate tempo beat – I used ‘Cyborg Chase’ from this book/CD combo

Music Express Extra - Developing Music Skills

which is tailor-made for this kind of pulse, rhythm and pitch work, (and entirely well worth the money in my view!)

Anyway, whatever you choose, listen to the music, and clap on the first beat four times, then on beats one and three four times, then on beats one, two, three and four, and finally on beats one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-

The next stage is to show them how to move their arms, like walking, first on beat one, then on one and three, and so on.

All this preparation is well worth the time – as well as reinforcing the learning, it prevents chaos at the next stage, which is Movement!

Now, choose a couple of children (I’m working in a small space so I chose just one) demonstrate moving to the music like this; take a single step on beat one (four times, as before), then a step on each of beat one and three, a step on each of beats one, two three fourth. Before you let them go, make it ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that when you get to one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, they MUST run on the spot..’No travelling’ seems to be the magic phrase, which I took from a PE lesson.

If all has gone well, you can let the whole class join in together. Because of my space issues, I chose ten children, and then let the final twenty loose.

I’ll be introducing the notation for semibreves (whole-notes), minims (half-notes), crotchets (quarter-notes) and quavers (eighth-notes) later on.

Flying birds divider


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Questions, questions, answers, answers

The ‘asking questions‘ method that I was using for teaching children to learn, and trying to improve their practising at home, seems to be working.

Now, sometimes, in a lesson, I hear the student asking themselves useful questions as we tackle some new tricky moments!

I have one older student, in year 9, who still needs a lot of help to interpret the notation. He is someone who needs to go at a slower pace anyway; quick fire questions and explanations just confuse him and then everything stops while he pulls the threads of his concentration back together.

It is so, so, SO tempting to just tell him; “Fourth finger, this one here, on that B flat there, yes, like that,”, but he’ll never be independent if I always tell him exactly what to do!

So, last lesson, I found myself repeating a litany…

At first it went like this;

  • “Which clef?”
  • “Is the note a line or a space?”
  • “So is that ‘All Cows Eat Grass’ or Good Boys Deserve Football Always?’
  • “How close is it to Middle C?”
  • “Which finger needs to go on the note?”

After a while I didn’t need to ask quite so many questions. He would volunteer the answer to the next question before I’d asked it.

Finally, I was able to change to

  • “What question do you need to ask now?”

repeated as many times as necessary. I tried to be very careful to use an encouraging tone of voice, rather than exasperated, in order to keep the questioning positive and useful to him.

It seemed that having the familiarity of repetition helped him learn a structure and strategy to work out what needed to happen with fingers and notes in order to find his place. The consequence of going through this process was that he experienced a whole series of small successes, as he was able to answer simple questions with one hundred percent accuracy. I’m hoping that his burgeoning note-reading skill becomes enveloped in an aura of success rather than continual correction, and he develops the ability, and confidence in his ability, to be less dependent in the future.

We shall see…



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My Small Group Beginner Recorders

I’ve a couple of small groups of recorder pupils – two or three in each group – young children aged around seven or eight years old. After talking to other woodwind and recorder teachers and looking through various books, including these old favourites;

  • ‘Recorder Magic’ by Jane Sebba and David Moses
  • ‘Recorder from the beginning’ John Pitts

I’ve gone with ‘Red Hot Recorders’ by Sarah Watts, because the one book takes you quite a long way,

Red Hot: Recorder Tutor 1

and supplemented it with ‘Recorder Boppers’ by David Moses (link to website here). STARTERS PLUS Pack

Most of the children had already received one term’s whole class tuition, so we weren’t starting totally from the beginning.

I’ve chosen to intersperse ‘Red Hot Recorders’ with ‘Recorder Boppers’ because I so enjoy the clever writing – short elements that you build into something that sounds pretty amazing with the backing track. It is quite an expensive resource for a teacher to buy, but is then freely photocopiable to give sheets to the children.

‘Red Hot Recorders’ goes along at quite a pace for young beginners, and for children who don’t put in the time at home, so Recorder Bopper pieces are very useful to slow things down a bit, and consolidate what the children (are supposed to) have already learned!

The sheets are greeted with  a good deal of pleasure by the children, which means I can use them both to consolidate what they are already supposed to know, and as a reward/incentive/fun concert piece as we go along.

So far the children can all read and play B A G E D. I have introduced slurring a bit earlier than the Sarah Watts book using a Bopper piece, ‘Sweet House Party’, which is their number one favourite after just a couple of weeks. They are all desperate to revisit ‘Lonely Mountain’, which I used in the whole class lessons, but I’m holding out until we have reached ‘C’ with Sarah Watts.

Now all I have to do is find an effective way of encouraging them to do more practise, and more effective practise, at home!

Capuchin plays the recorder


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How to Practice for the beginner pianist

This week I have been creating practice charts for many of my beginner students. They are tailored to the age and ability of each students, and how (if?) they are progressing.

This example is roughly what I wrote into their notebook for a young beginner;  The idea is to get them to move on from just playing everything through once and then getting bored.

Pick at least one thing from each column in every practice!
Warm up Pieces Have Fun
Play ‘I like eating chocolate cake’ right hand and left hand Rufus – all the Left hand until it is comfortable to play Play a conversation between an elephant and a mouse
Roly Poly right hand and left hand Rufus – right hand first line until it is comfortable to play Make a rainstorm
Play some words from notebook Rufus – right hand second line until it is comfortable to play Play ‘spooky piano’ (silently hold down a load of bass keys,

Play some treble notes loud and staccato, listen) Does it make a difference if you use black or white keys?

Play all the Ds on the piano. Now do that with your eyes shut Clocks – try first two lines hands separately and then hands together Play a piece from your old book
Play all the Gs on the piano. Now do that with your eyes shut Clocks – try first two lines hands separately and then hands together Have a look at the other pieces in the yellow book. See which one would you like to learn next.
Play 111 222 333 444 555 anywhere on the piano Play all of clocks hands separately and together Play the notes in Rufus in backwards order

The idea is to give them a structure for their practice time which provides variety, helps them to be a bit more thorough in their learning, and helps them see some progress.

I have also sent an email to their parents with a detailed worksheet for four practice sessions; I did this for a couple of weeks for a girl I inherited who Never Ever Practised and was ‘still on book 1′ after three years! It was a bit of a pain creating and sending these emails, but after a month she had made so much progress that she continued under her own steam and has (almost) never looked back.

I do find it all a bit of a fiddle, especially the individual emails home, but it is worth the effort for the sake of the rewards for both pupil and me later on!



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Bricks – Following a Melody

I’m spending more and more time in lessons with beginners working on identifying ‘steps’ (seconds) and ‘skips’. Reading music becomes much quicker when you don’t go to the trouble of working out the letter name of each note, but merely plonk the relevant finger down.

In the early stages of piano you are just using what I call ‘five-finger-tunes’, and I am sure there is an equivalent for teachers of other instruments.

I’m currently teaching piano a young violinist and we started a little tune using DEFGA. I have been quite surprised to see that she has very little independence in the fingers of her right hand. Of course, string players use the whole of their right hand as a unit. That would explain it, except that she had also been learning keyboard for several years so I would have thought she would be used to using her right hand and to piano finger numbers. Hey ho. This was only lesson two with me on the piano, and so very early days for her to adjust to my teaching style.

After an unsuccessful and confused walk through the melody, I got out the little bricks;

Bricks D minor

I showed her the melody on the bricks, rather than the keys, comparing it to the sheet music; F    G A D     E, and so on, singing the tune using finger numbers as I went along ‘middle….. next finger, pinky, thumb….. pointy’). Then she had a go, avoiding the tricky business on dealing with the conversion from violin finger numbering to piano finger numbering and without any fear of ‘playing’ a wrong note.

Finally, she played it through on the piano much more successfully. Later on, a G sharp makes a brief appearance;

Bricks D minor with G sharpI quickly wrote on a spare green brick, so she could see how the fourth finger (‘piano finger’) climbs onto the black note; A G sharp; then I took it away for her to read and play A G F E D.

It is not often that I stumble upon such a versatile resource… fiddling round with the bricks enlivened several lessons yesterday.

birds on a branch divider

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Questions, questions

I was trying to motivate a young pupil to SUCCEED in getting through a line of her piece without being frustrated and over-faced by the size of the task. We were sweating our way through the last line of ‘Train Ride’, by Sarah Watts from the ABRSM Prep Test Book;

Train Ride snip

I found the way through was to approach the problem in a series of bite-sized chunks. Or even tiny little nibble-sized fragments;

I asked ‘Can you play the first bar?’ She gave it a go, and found that she could.

‘Can you play the second bar?’ She gave me an old-fashioned look and played it.

‘How about the A and the E in the Right Hand?’ She looked at me pityingly and played A E.

‘Now can you do the left hand 1 2 3 4 5?’ She clearly thought I was being rather simple.

‘And finally can both hands play the top note and the bottom note at the same time?’ Done before I’d finished asking.

‘So, have you played the whole of that line?’ Rather surprised, she admitted she had.

I had been writing down these questions in her notebook as we went along.

‘So all you have to do, when you are at home, is ask yourself the questions, and see if you can answer them.’

With a happy smile, she agreed. We then looked at the other lines, and worked out what ‘The Questions’ might be, and I’ll see what the outcome is next week.

Meanwhile, back at home, I am slowly trying to memorise the Chopin Nocturne no 1 in B flat minor.

‘Can I remember the change to D flat in the LH accompaniment? Yes

‘Can I remember what comes at the end of this RH run of quavers?’

So, what works for a seven-year-old child doing a prep test works for me as well – I bow to my mantra

‘To teach is to learn twice’

Flying birds divider

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Building Chords with Bricks

I’ve been trying to think of an interesting and portable resource to help with uteaching chords and inversions. I never got the hang of these, never ever, until I started learning to harmonise Bach Chorales as part of my teaching diploma.

Then I had a mini-brain-wave, partly sparked off by a post in www.teachpianotoday.com. Their idea involved cutting up pool noodles (what is a pool noodle???? some serious googling required here!  It turns out they are colourful foam noodles made out of the same stuff you use to insulate pipes. Obvious to the teachpianotoday team because they live in the hot sunny part of USA. I suppose you all knew that too.)

Anyway, pool noodles didn’t seem portable to me; but how about little coloured wooded bricks?

chord 1smaller5

I wrote the note letters on them with a black marker pen; red seemed obvious for C, green for G, blue for B. There are only six colours, but I have some tape with fishes on it, so stuck that over some spare red bricks for F.

Now to build chords.. C, F and G

chord 2 smaller 7

Inversions? Piece of cake.

chord 3 smaller 7

How about a cadence?

chord 4 smaller 7

Modulations? Major and minor? Just add sharps and flats to the other sides of the cubes.

chord 5 smaller 7

I can’t wait to use these in theory and practical lessons. Now all I have to do is find a use for the the other 80 cubes left in the box…

Oh my mind is fairly whizzing with more uses for these little bricks. Good-oh, that’s another dozen Music Jungle Posts in the pipeline!

birds on a branch divider

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