86/100 Nee Nah Nee Nah; Strings and Semitones

On the piano, tones and semitones really aren’t an issue – there they are, all laid out in black and white. The physical relationship isn’t a big deal on wind instruments either – you just use the fingering for the note that is printed in the sore – if you know it.

But for a violin, viola, or in this case, a Grade 8 cellist playing in treble clef, it becomes a very different problem. You have to have a very clear sense of the tonality of the passage you are playing, and the relationship between each note, in order to climb up, and then back down, in a convincing manner.

I was working through such a passage this morning in “Adoration” by Felix Borowski – it starts three minutes into this youtube version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rrXgADsesA

Here’s the score, but for a violin, so it is an octave higher than the cello version:


The part I was working on is from bar 51 to bar 55. It is basically a decorated scale in A major, but the intervals vary between tones and semitones. For a pianist, it is just a matter of reading the notes carefully. But for a string player, if you don’t get the semitones and tones spot on, you will not end up where you hoped to be!

So, as a starting point we sang chromatic scales to the sound “nee”, and major scales as “nah, nah, nah, nee, nah, nah, nah, nee” to identify the tones and semitones semitone and tones. Then we worked out what the intervals were, and sang the passage using “nee” and “nah” appropriately. This proved a successful strategy, and the passage now has (almost) reliable intonation. Now for the bowing…

holly divider

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85/100 Intentional Learning

That sounds a bit serious…

But I mean that kind of practising when you first work out, and then work at, exactly what has to happen to manage to play the right notes.

Let’s take this extract from the A2 piece from the current ABRSM Grade 5 Piano Syllabus: (Allegro from Toccata in F by Carlos de Seixas).  I have spent an AGE working on hands separately with this pupil, a couple of bars at time.  He’s easily over-faced, always assumes that everything is impossible, and also has STILL not got the idea of Quality over Quantity when learning new material.  Well, it is long past time that he should be putting the hands together, and I launched that process earlier this week.

(You may be wondering why I am still trying to get this pupil to do this deep, intentional, learning at GRADE FIVE! Well, that’s another story for another day!)

allegro-toccata-no-8-in-f-carlos-de-seixas Bar 5 is where the really fiddly fingerwork starts, as the left hand begins to have a life of its own rather than easy repeated notes. I carefully went over bar 5, crotchet beat by crotchet beat.

“What do you have have to remember to tell your fingers to do, to get the first beat correct?”   “Move the RH thumb down one note, play E with the LH hand.”           We do that several times correctly.

“Now let’s look at beat two….”      ”I need to remember to play my LH fourth finger.” We play beat two several times.

“OK, this is going well. Let’s do the first two beats together. Remember to remember what you have to do…”  Very slowly, and accurately, he inches his way through two beats. RESULT! Celebration! Cheers! (Seriously – I like to celebrate every success!) He does it again, until it has become a no-brainer. We add beat 3, after careful examination and practice. Beats 1-3 are now pretty effortless – and actually we have only spent about five minutes so far.

“Let’s complete the bar… what are the memory points for getting from beat 3 into beat 4?”  There’s quite a lot going on here. I got him to talk me through everything.  ”The LH has to play a B flat, which can act as a reminder/trigger for the RH B flat in the second quaver.  AND the RH has to do a finger swap AT THE SAME TIME.”   I did consider bringing the finger swap onto the previous quaver, but decided to stick with dong the change on the beat.  We did beat 3 and 4 a few times, carefully, accurately, avoiding introducing any errors at all.  Naturally there were celebrations!

Then, after a very intense ten minutes, we had achieved the whole of bar 5, hands together, without errors, and without stress.  They have become a “no-brainer”, at least as regards notes, fingering and rhythm

I have set four bars, to be learned like this over the Christmas Holiday.  If he does this bit by bit, with loads of repetition, then two things will have happened.  He will have moved the piece on by four bars, but also will have learned how to practice in a way that will result in Real, Intentional Learning.

To begin with, progress may seem unbearably slow, but it won’t be that slow for ever as he gets better at instructing his fingers what they have to do, and there should be so much less “unpicking” of “Unintentional” Learning…  I live in hope…

holly divider

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84/100 Easy Piano Sight Reading in F major

Here are three short pieces in F major for learning to do Grade 1 piano sight reading. The last one doesn’t have any dynamics; so you can add your own.



They are meant to be a starting point; try adding some extra notes here and there to turn them into “hands together” pieces – a chance for your pupils to choose what notes they think would work, and write them in. They could also put in natural signs in front of some of the B flats and see if they like the effect.


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83/100 Discussion Groups

You know the scenario… you play a piece of music, and then ask questions about it. Three children put their hands up, and the others watch and wait.

the magic hand of silence

I noticed that in many primary school classes, the children are assigned “talking partners”. I’m not sure how that works in the classroom, but in my music lessons, I do it like this;

Before playing the recording, I tell them the sort of things that I would  like them to listen out for… for example

A song that I am going to teach them; What is it about? What sort of mood is it? Are the singers adults or children? How many people are singing? How is it accompanied?

A piece of orchestral music; What sort of mood is it? What makes it effective? What instruments/percussion can they hear? Is it being played by a few people or lots of people? Would you dance to it, march, use it for a backing track for a film? Does it have a tune? lots of tunes? no tune? Can you keep the beat or does it not seem to have a pulse? Does it stay the same speed?

A recording of a class performance; did everyone start together? was  everyone quiet at the beginning and the end? Did we achieve contrasts of dynamics/pitch/tempo/timbre, or whatever we were aiming for? if we were singing, could you hear the words? if there was an ostinato, was it neat, tidy and in time?

After we’ve listened to it, I put the children into threes, remind them of the questions, and let them talk about it in their little groups. A few minutes later, I ask them to choose a spokesperson, and agree on just one thing that they would like to share.


Once they are all ready, we go round listening to each spokesperson in turn. I make a point of explaining that I don’t mind if two groups want to say the same thing. I remember one very competitive boy desperately wanting his group to go first, in case another group was going to say “their comment”. The point is that two groups can share the same opinion but express it differently, or add an extra bit of information.

I’ve found that this way we have a proper sharing of information and discussion, making a good preparation for whatever the next step in the lesson will be.

holly divider

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82/100 A New Way to be Scared – Handbells

Who would have thought that handbells could be so scary?

It all looks so easy…  here’s a “flashmob” in Hawaii which you can listen to on youtube: (it’s only three minutes long)


I love that resonant sound.

I used to ring in a Handbell Consort; we took it fairly seriously, but not to the extent of wearing white cotton gloves. OUr repertoire was extensive and impressive – “Star Wars”, “Light Cavalry Overture”, and even Scott Joplin Rags.

Today we had an ad-hoc all-age handbell session as one of the activities in church this morning. I made a very, very simple chord-based accompaniment to two of the hymns/songs that we were gong to sing later on. The grown-ups and the sensible small child soon got the hang of which bell to ring when, and how to ring correctly and safely. You hold the bell by the leather handle, as close as possible to the bell, and ring it away from you with a similar action to knocking a nail into a plank of wood.

Not so scary.

EXCEPT that if you have a small not-so-adept child, they stand a very good chance indeed of hitting themselves in the face as they bring the bell back up after “knocking in the nail”. The edge of the bell is quite sharp, and it’s mass and energy, even for a small bell, is considerable, so the injury you can inflict on your face will be substantial.

Here’s the mantra; “hold the bell up, like a cup of water. Tip forwards, to throw the water over the teacher, and bring it up again, without tipping the water back over yourself”. Small not-so-adept-children tend to prefer force to technique to try and make the bell sound, which is where we all get scared.

So I stood there, ringing my bells, and calling out “Fred’s turn, Joe’s turn, Fred-watch-your-bell-turn, both of you”. We got through all the verses without any bloodletting, I was glad to say. I think I will try and bring in some soft beaters for the smaller children to use next time.

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81/100 Christmas Samba

With my fairly experienced year 5 and 6 class, I’ve been working on rhythms where the words start on the “up-beat” all term, based on a “desktop” samba taken from “The Singing Schools books by Maurice Walsh. It had word-rhythms such as “See you in Rio, will I” which I allocated to agogo bells, and “Go to Brazil, I want to” which tamborims played. It took several lessons before this group could reliably get the right part of their word rhythm on beat 1, but once they could do that, they were away!

As a result of all that practice, this little samba took no time at all to put together. It is based on the old Christmas rhyme;

Christmas is coming

the Geese are getting fat

Please put a penny

in the Old Man’s hat

Notice how beat 1 falls on the high-lighted words. Teach it to the whole class, keeping a steady beat and explaining how the words fit to a 1 2 3 4 count.

Now allocate lines to instrumental sections. I did it like this;

line 1 tamborim

line 2 ganza

line 3 agogo – let them choose which words are high or low but don’t let it get too complicated

line 4 shared between repinique “in the” and surdo “Old man’s hat”

Now play it round the different sections in turn, until it is running smoothly.

Now to layer it up – I just told each section to repeat their line continuously once their turn arrived. Done. Christmas Samba!

holly divider

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80/100 Percussion Band at Christmas

Additional 31835, f. 80v



I’m trying to arrange percussion parts for the Nativity/carol service at the end of term, and I will have NO TIME to practice with the children until the last few days before the event…. notice the state of my nails!

I’m so glad that learning to play ostinato accompaniments was a big theme of this term’s class music teaching (this was long before I had any inkling of this church service coming up).

This is what I have got together so far;

“Little Donkey”,

a small team of two “woodblockers” playing the rhythm of  the phrase “Little Donkey” throughout the verses,

another pair of children armed with jingle sticks keeping the pulse. That’s the clopping hooves and the jingling harness.

When it comes to “Ring out those bells tonight, Bethlehem, Bethlehem, Follow that star tonight, Bethlehem, Bethlehem”, another team of children are playing the tune, which is “8  8  8  7  6  5,   6  765,   6   765″ assuming that you are in C major, and the children are using those rather nice little chime bar sets in C major where the bars are lettered C D E F G A B C and numbered 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. The advantage of using numbers is that the children will select the correct “C”. I’m hoping that having several children playing the chimes means that some kind of consensus will overlay the errors that will creep in from time to time.

“We Three Kings”

I am enlivening all the verses with different percussion instruments keeping the pulse throughout: jingles again for the first verse (harness sounds), triangles for verse 2 (sort of clinking of gold coins, maybe?), tambourines, shaken, not bashed, for incense in verse three, and shakers – ganzas, in fact, for verse 4 which is myrrh and rather gloomy. There was a bit of a scrum for the cymbals among the group of players; a GENTLE tap on the cymbal accents the word “STAR” in each chorus. Judging by the first run-through this afternoon I may have to be very selective when choosing who is to be relied upon to go for “mysterious” rather than “bright” when playing the cymbals.

holly divider




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79/100 Third Position for Cello

Sliding penguin

Here comes Miss Mary Mack again:

miss-marry-mack-for-celloin a version for cello.

It is a nice simple little thing for teaching first position finger placement, but, revelation – how about using it to teach third position? Check out the fingering…

You can play this on each string in turn to practice nice clean shifts. I’m rather pleased with this idea.

The first couple of shifts are fairly easy to manage, but the shift to start the bar 5 is just a little trickier for some reason.

I think this would be neat for other string players as well. Over to you…

leaves divider

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