2017/12 Prep Tests and Teaching by Rote

Rote is how I learned to play piano – I had a “knuckle-rapper” teacher to start with.

“It goes like this, dear” she would say, playing the first phrase. If I copied it right, all was well and good. If not, she’d do it again. I’d normally manage to learn it after a few goes, depending on how complex it was – but how on earth could you practice it during the week? So, back to square one, next lesson… and the one after, and the one after, which is where the knuckle rapping would probably start.

I could just about read treble clef, but bass clef was a mystery for several years, until I started learning the cello. And changed piano teacher. The ne piano teacher was NOT a knuckle rapper, but none-the-less fairly scary.

So, I have been a rigid advocate of learning to read music. On the whole, unless there is a definite reason (dyslexia, learning difficulties), reading music isn’t that heard – no worse than learning spellings or times tables. It’s just not very interesting – like spellings and times tables.

However, in the case of the piano Prep Test, I have radically changed my approach. I now tend to teach the five-finger exercises as “telephone numbers”, written into their practice notebooks. From the new test, “Dreaming”

5 4 3 2 1234545 right hand, and then left hand.

without bothering on start notes. “Just play it wherever you like” I say. I make sure the rhythm is correct, and I make sure they DON’T see the printed copy yet. Once the fingers and rhythm are secure, I then show them where on the piano to place their hands;

“Right Hand starts on A, the first letter of the alphabet. Left starts on D, DOWN there”. I write those instructions into their practice notebooks. Later on, when that is secure, I show them the printed copy. “That’s what you have been playing” I say, in admiration, and they glow with pride. I show them how the notes move step by step, finger to finger, and we look at the dynamics. Next week, they can play from the copy, following the notes and the dynamics, and also “by heart” because they’ve been doing that for weeks now. “Reading” the music holds no worries – they are “reading” what they already know.

I’ve used this approach with a tense and timid Grade 1 pupil as well – teaching her the first part of “La Donna e Mobile” with a mixture of finger numbers and rote instructions;

3   3   3    5  42;    2   2   2   4  31;   3   2   1  ”hoppity-skip-jump-32″;    4  3   1  ”hoppity-skip-jump-32″;

If I had shown her the printed music, she would have stopped practising in fright. Now she’s playing confidently, and I can relate the next part of the piece to what she already knows. I call that a success, and can build upon these very first steps in gaining confidence.

Snake keyboard divider



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2017/11 The New ABRSM Prep Test

I’m a fan! I can’t remember how long the old prep test book had been out, but if I never teach “Boating Lake” or “Jogalong” again I won’t mind a bit. Not to mention “Walking”, “Rocking” and “Hopping”.

The new prep test is a more realistic mid-step between the end of the tutor books that I mainly use, and the Grade 1 exam.

I’m also really enjoying the pieces in the new Piano Star books. I’m using all three of them.

Book 1 makes an ideal mini-bridge between the tutor book and the next level. Younger children may have become so used to the way the music is presented in their book, that having another book of pieces in quirky styles and a different font helps them become more confident, and consolidates note-reading.

With more confident pupils, I just tick off the ones in the list of pieces which I think they will be able to work out (with a little help here and there) for themselves. Tripping across the odd new note or rhythm here or there is a good initiative test for them.

I take a similar approach with book 2. It contains alternative pieces for the Prep Test which are amusing, descriptive, approachable and inviting.  As the date of the prep test comes closer, we select one piece to “learn perfectly” while “messing around” with the others – we might play them on different notes, at different octaves, missing out accidentals or adding more – whatever seems good at the time.

Book 3 is a good mini-step between Prep Test and Grade 1.

As a general point, I think it is a great mistake to lurch straight into the next exam book the week after taking an exam. Ideally, I would like to have spent some time covering all the technical requirements (dealing with the struggles and issues along the way) on pieces that are not too challenging. That way I also get to introduce lots of different pieces, so that the students have plenty of opportunity for honing their note/sight-reading skills.

contrary motion divider

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2017/9 When they stop practicing

Here’s an insightful blogpost from www.teachpianotoday.com for dealing with those times when a student is unable to practice.

Not so much for when they’ve lost the motivation or interest as when, through circumstances at home or at school, they are just not in a mental place where practice can happen.

There’s not much that I can add – except maybe the advice to give the student a hug, although probably what they might need at the time, needs to be treated with caution these days.

leaves divider

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2017/10 Ocarina problems

I’m teaching a year 3 /4 class the ocarina this coming term. What could go wrong? Here’s the excellent tutor book that came with the ocarinas;

Product Details

which I have used with great success all last year. Ah, now you may be getting to my problem: these children have already done the early part of the book. I doubt the year 3s will remember much from last year – but the year 4s will probably not want to revisit Frere Jacques so soon after last time.

Then I had a brainwave – B A and G are the first notes on a recorder, and are actually very easy to learn on the ocarina; B is just the LH first finger, A is both first fingers, G is left-hand first and second finger. How about using a recorder method?

My all-time favourite recorder method is still “Recorder Magic”. I bought the interactive CD-ROM many years ago, and I really enjoy teaching from it. The children also enjoy learning from it, which is a bonus. I used it for teaching with boomwhackers, and djembe rhythms as well – how’s that for versatility?

I will be able to un-select the recorder from the display which is a big plus. The pieces come with all sorts of ideas for duets and ostinato accompaniments, and “switcheroo” type things to click on. They children will also be learning pitch notation, rather than ocarina notation from the start.

Oh, by the way, it is worth double checking the orientation of any ocarina charts you acquire. Mostly, the first finger holes are at the bottom of the circle or square, but sometimes they are at the top… And sometimes they assume the bottom note is C, and sometimes they assume it is D.




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2017/8 More Music for Ensembles

I teach a couple of mixed-age, mixed ability keyboard ensembles. Finding suitable mixed-age, mixed-ability ensemble music is a perennial challenge.

The BBC Ten Pieces resources includes several arrangements of classical music for ocarinas, and I have selected the Mozart Horn Concerto for the older group. It is arranged in 4 parts, ranging from tricksy to simple – just the job. You can find it here…  a plethora of parts for orchestral instruments. Keep scrolling down, and you will find a link for the ocarina parts and also an mp3 backing.

I once had a whim

I might introduce it to the class by letting them hear the famous Flanders and Swann version first. I’m not sure we’ll play it as fast as that!

fanfare for the common ant

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2017/7 Beethoven’s Fifth for Ocarinas

Last term I achieved a long-held ambition. When I stumbled across an arrangement of the themes from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for ocarinas I simply burst into laughter. Then I decided that it was something that HAD to be done – the whole concept was just too, too absurd.

With a class set of ocarinas in my hand, and a year 5-6 class to teach, my plans were laid. It took a very careful, steady approach to teach a class of complete novices to read the ock-boxes and learn to deal with all the rhythms and score reading challenges. The class were very good-humoured about the project, if a little overwhelmed at the appearance of the music at first. However, as time went along, the children started feeling really proud of themselves each time they managed a line, or a page, or to play in several parts.

My challenge to them was not so much as to get it all correct, but to try and improve every time.

I interspersed playing, with watching various performances of the symphony, especially ones with graphic scores,


Beethoven Fifth Graphic Score

or the PDQ Bach version.

Beethoven Fifth PDQ

We also watched “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra” to see all the orchestral instruments.

Here’s where I found the arrangement – It will work for more than just ocarinas, so give it a go!

Chatting birds

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2017/6 Group exercise – Key stage 2

Following on from the last post about the beanbag/percussion game,

I tried the same thing with the next class who were Year 3 and 3 (aged 7 and 8). I moved through the preliminary steps more swiftly, and added an extra element by grouping the children in threes, one with the bean-bag, one with the shaker, and one with a small hand drum, to tap when the bean bag landed on the floor. So, the game was, one child threw the beanbag up in the air (we had previously discussed what would make for “successful” throwing, and several children had obligingly offered “sensible behaviour”, “remembering that this is a music lesson and not play-time” – whoop whoop!), a second child played the shaker all the time that the bean bag was moving, and the third child tapped the drum when it landed.

I gave them a few minutes to take turns with the beanbag, shaker and drum, and then added another element.

Grouping the children in fours, one threw the beanbag, one played the shaker while the beanbag went up, another played a jingle stick or bells while it went down, and one tapped the drum when it landed. This is a bit harder than it sounds, at least to begin with. I gave the groups a chance to try this out, again taking turns, and then invited each group to demonstrate.

We spent some time talking about what made it work – watching each other, making sure everyone is ready, counting in or signalling when the thrower was about to throw, and so on.

Moving on a step, I explained that the bean bag thrower was acting as a conductor, showing the rest of the group when to play. If I took the ban bag away, how would everyone know when to play? What about the conductor making changes, like playing in a different order, or for different amounts of time, or more than one person at a time, or louder and softer?

After some time to experiment, we watched each group in turn – the results were surprisingly different and all quite sophisticated. Next time I shall show them some clips of a standard orchestra, with particular emphasis on the actions of the conductor.

Noisy monkey

Footnote; I ran this lesson again with a different class of year 3 and 4 children at a different school the very next afternoon. This class were all dressed up for World Book Day, had spent the morning enjoying special session with a very lively story-teller, gone swimming, had lunch and playtime. I was expecting the class to be a little more lively, and a little less controlled – and this proved to be the case. In fact the whole session was altogether far more “hyperactive” than the previous one. I just did part of the lesson, and moved on to something calmer. You have been warned!

leaves divider


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2017/5 Classroom Percussion – Group exercise for Early Years

Here’s a lesson that went rather well today.

I remembered one of the games I tripped across while looking at Drum circle activities, on youtube, posted by a drummer called Kalani. (I was so impressed by him, that I bought a book!).

In his game, he threw a ball in the air, and everyone played one tap on their instrument when he caught the ball.

I’d half remembered the game, and made a different version. Here’s how it went;

The class of year 1 and 2 children came in and sat in a circle as usual. I took a small, light beanbag, and threw it up in the air, to land on the floor. (giggles all round). I asked the children to say (not shout!) “Thud” when it landed, which they mostly managed, and after one or two attempts were very good at. I let a few children have a go with the beanbag, and then added the idea of pointing at the beanbag as it went up and down, and saying “thud” when it landed. Finally, we said (quite gently) “shhh” as the beanbag travelled, and said “thud”. By now, a number of children had taken turns at doing the beanbag thing as the extra complexities were added.

So, we were nearly there. I gave a child a shaker, and their task was to keep shaking while the beanbag was airborne and stop when the beanbag landed. A few more goes, and we were ready for the “off”.

At this point we discussed what made a good “go” at the beanbag shaker partnership. Sensible throwing, watching each other, paying attention were all suggestions offered by the children. I paired up the children, equipped each pair with a bean bag and a shaker, and instructions to Be Sensible and Take Turns and let them loose.

It was fairly chaotic; but by clapping my hands for stillness every so often and inviting a pair to show their effort the to class, the excitement levels were fairly well contained, and the children spent about ten minutes in carefully watching and concentrating on each other; exactly what is needed for successful group percussion work in music.

In fact, it went so well with this class, that I used the same activity, pushing it further, with the following class of Year 3 and 4 children. Guess what my next post will be about!.

Flying birds divider

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