24/60 Using “this” to teach “that”

I’m currently teaching a whole class year 3 classical guitar group.

Kids playing guitar. Licensed through creative commons.


That’s 30 children, sitting on chairs in three rows in the school hall, each encumbered by what looks like a guitar the size of a baby whale balanced on their lap (why haven’t we been allocated half-size guitars?).

Image result for child with huge cuddly toy

The question is, what funky music can I offer them while they are in the early stages of going “ping, ping, ping” on the high “E” string, or on the next “B” string?

Cue my “Red Hot” treble recorder tutor book with lively backing tracks! Once I had taught a rhythm by rote, we “pinged” away merrily, and with increasing skill and unity, to the first track on the CD. I was overjoyed to see some enthusiasm, and hear cries of “again, again”.

Next, the perennially favourite, brilliant “Glory B”, first track from my “Red Hot” descant tutor book. Superb for teaching “walking fingers” – the instrumental part is just “B B B B sh sh sh sh” repeated eight times. I’ve used this track for recorders (obviously), keyboards, and now guitars. “again, again” – music to my ears. The whole bar rest is just enough time to call “girls” or “boys” or “front row” to add variety and challenge.   Capuchin plays the recorder

More and more, I am using the tutor for one instrument to teach another – have you tried using the “Recorder Magic” interactive DVD (my “go-to” all-time favourite whole-class recorder teaching resource) to teach keyboards, pitch notation on boom-whackers, or ocarinas? Oh, you should!


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24/60 The Benefits of Teaching by Numbers/Letters

What!?! I hear you cry. Wasn’t the last post a diatribe against exactly this idea?

Err, but nothing is quite as black and white as it seems. For example, teaching little five-finger warm ups (here I am wearing my pianist hat again, but I am sure other teachers can adapt this.

One of the main many aims of instrumental teaching is developing independence and strength in fingers.

what is easier for a beginner to read? 1 2 3 4     5 4 3 2    1 2 3 4     5 4 3 2     1  or the notation?

Or    1 2 1 2 1       1 3 1 3 1        1 4 1 4 1        1 5 1 5 1  (while rapping “I like chocolate cake” or similar)

Or inviting children to make up their own “telephone number twisters” using the numbers 1 2 3 4 5

Or, at the end of their first term, when note reading is still in the early stages, teaching them

3 3 3     3 3 3     3 5 1 2  3        4 4 4 4     4 3 3 3     3 2 2 1    2      5   so that they have something to play on Christmas Day?

Or chanting E D C      E D C       CCCC   DDDD   E D C     while playing Hot Cross Buns?

Or improvising a tune using words like   EGG   CAB    FEED     BADGE as a starting point?

and look what I have just found….http://musicmattersblog.com/2006/11/27/a-music-spelling-bee/

We are engaged in the complicated process of connecting eyes – reading music, brains – processing the symbols on the page, muscles – activating the required fingers, ears – hearing the sounds, all at the same time. And, all at this same time, we want the experience to be enjoyable and successful and satisfying for the student.

It is well worth using every avenue that will lead to developing these skills! (But I am still a bit of an obsessive about learning to read music!)

 aliens for treble recorder     aliens for the descant recorder     aliens for clarinet players

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23/60 Teaching by Finger Number/Note Letter

Please don’t.

I think it is is such a BAD idea…

What has provoked this post, is taking on a number of young piano students recently. They turned up with numbers written over EVERY SINGLE NOTE in their pieces. Ugh. So, they are playing fairly fluently, but with no sense of rhythm or pulse. They are also doomed every time there is a position change or shift in hand shape.

I’m talking about piano pupils, approaching Grade 1 stage, but I have seen the same with string players – every note labelled with string letter and finger number, so “Twinkle Twinkle” looks like this; (for a cello player)

D0 D0 A0 A0 A1 A1 A0 D4 D4 D3 D3 D1 D1 D0 etc

for a pianist it might look like this; 1 1 5 5 5 5 5 4 4 3 3 2 2 1, and if the pupil hasn’t realized that 5s refer to note G G A A G then the numbers are not going to work.

I dare say there is a way of writing numbers for other instruments as well.

You end up with pupils who cannot learn a new piece until it is fully numbered and lettered. This is such a bad foundation for the future. I used to have the same battle with young recorder groups. Having painstakingly taught them the note B, “bang on the middle line” and the note A “in the spAce” – how hard is that to learn? Per-leese? – they come back next week with every single letter written in. Being the mean and horrible person that I am, I promptly rub out all the letters.

OK, I’m not that mean. When a young piano pupil came to me with “Mary Had A Little Lamb” completely lettered and numbered – “Mummy did it for me”,

mary had fingers and numbers

I started by discussing whether the repeated EEE, DDD, EEE in bars 2,3 and 4 all needed to be written in.We agreed I could rub out the duplicated letters. Then I wondered if she would still be able to play it if we rubbed out all the middle Cs. (“The notes with whiskers on their faces, like C for Cat”). “Maybe…”, so I handed her the rubber. By stages, we worked out that even if we rubbed out all the letters, she could still read the notes – Whoop whoop and three stickers!

My policy is to resist all attempts to add extra letters and fingerings, and I use every opportunity to sneak in some no-pressure note reading practice. Like….

“Play me just the Ds in this piece, as I sing it to you”

“Point to all the Fs”

“How many times do you play Middle C”

Well done – have another three stickers! (and give one to yourself for being such a brilliant teacher!)

Wait, now, I’m just remembering the the number of times I use “telephone numbers” and “spellings” to teach tunes… here comes another post…

birds on a branch divider

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22/60 Finger Puppets

I have two – an elephant and a giraffe – and they usually get involved in piano lessons most days.

elephant and giraffe half size

Sometimes I wedge them on the keyboard to indicate where E and G are, and other times they sit as an encouragement while a young student plays, or an inducement (let’s have a go at “Flying” and then the elephant can come out and play).

Sometimes I hide them under my fingers as I play, making my fingers arch over the animal like a safe cave, to demonstrate a natural curved finger shape. My thumb is then like a door at the front of the cave.

I’d love to have complete set of finger puppets, maybe an Antelope, a Bear, a Cat, a Dog and a Fish, to keep company with Elephant and Giraffe. One for each note! If I had enough patience, I would knit myself a set. But I don’t.

Well, just maybe, my wish will be coming true… I’ve ordered a set of 10 finger puppets from Amazon costing a mere £1.83! How on earth can they make and pack and ship finger puppets across the world for less than £2? Obviously, in order to avoid paying postage I’ve had to find something else to buy for at least £8.17, but that wasn’t too hard.

I’m waiting hopefully for the puppet’s arrival in the next day or so – I’ll let you know what they are like.

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21/60 The invisible pencil

It’s not the pencil that is invisible, come to think of it – the title is a bit misleading.

I’ve inherited a number of young piano pupils who are very weak at note-reading, so the challenge is to encourage them to engage “their little grey cells” and start learning their notes on the stave rather than relying on fingering and notes written in.

Actually, the challenge is for me, to keep on encouraging them to read the music. It is just too tempting to write in fingering and note letters from a mixture of exhaustion and exasperation.

We were going through the first piece in Book 5 of the Lang Lang Piano Method, a series I have just started using and am increasingly impressed with. The left hand of this piece is a cleverly constructed simple repetition of a scale element, with different endings each time.

“Could you just write an ‘F’ by that note so I can remember it?”, she asked sweetly. I swear she had her head on one side and was using a winning smile.

Image result for peanuts lucy images

I held the point of the pencil a millimetre above the point on the page, and mimed writing ‘F’.

“I suppose that means you won’t write it for me,” she said in a disappointed tone of voice.

Image result for peanuts lucy images

“No, no, I have written it in, but using invisible writing.”

Image result for peanuts lucy images

I got “the look”, but somehow she has managed to remember the ‘F’ and play it every time. Not sure how many times I can play that trick, though.

contrary motion divider

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20/60 Tears in my eyes

Last week I started about six brand new beginners, all aged between 7 and 9, who had never had a piano lesson in their life before. And in each of these lessons I had to brush away a little tear. Honestly. At my age. I’ve been teaching the piano for maybe twenty-five years, and it gets me every time.

In that precious, first half an hour, I covered

  1. how the black notes are arranged in groups of twos and threes (and we “splatted every group)
  2. high and low, loud and soft
  3. ‘D’ for dog is found in the dog kennel made by the group of two black notes (and we found every dog)
  4. ‘D’ is written like a ‘d’ (so we wrote music with minims and crotchets)
  5. ‘C’ is like a dog, but with whiskers ‘d‘  (so we wrote music for cats and dogs)
  6. ‘B’ for bear, or bee – depends on the child – is written like a ‘p’ (so we wrote music for bears and dogs)
  7. And now you can read the first page of the tutor book (in this case ‘Get Set Piano Book 1′)

And then I found a hanky and cleaned my glasses. Each and every child was awed by their achievement, and, with a little help, or in some cases no help at all, played the first couple of B and D pieces with increasing amazement.

I’ll go back over the details next week – you know, rhythm and counting and staves and treble clefs and bass clefs and all that malarkey. The important thing is that they left the music room reading and playing music, with plenty to keep them going for the rest of the week.

This is why I still teach piano after twenty-five years.

Oh, and if you were wondering why the posts are numbered in such a weird fashion, I am challenging myself to get 60 posts up before 31st December, so make up for my ‘sabbatical’ earlier this year.

Snake keyboard divider

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19/60 Wobbly Chicken warm up



Click on the chicken to make it wobble…..

I have led two singing assemblies now. The first one got off to a great start using the 5 second shower . The second was started by another teacher, who was going to teach a call and response song for the Harvest Festival which is looming all too soon. He did a sort of verbal warm-up along the lines of

“are you ready to sing?”     “yes”

“are you READY to sing?”   “yes”

“Are you REALLY READY to SING?”     “Yes”

But I wasn’t convinced. So, interrupting before he could start singing, I got everyone to stand and demonstrate the five-second shower – which hugely transformed the mood and energised the children.

I can’t keep on showering before every assembly, so here’s another tried and tested one;

For a count of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, shake first one leg, then the other, then one arm, then the other. Repeat, for a count of 4 each, then 2 each, then 1 each, then crouch down and spring up into the air while calling

“w–o–b–b–l–y–c–h–i–c–k–e–n!,      starting with a low pitch voice, rising  in pitch as you jump.

You can repeat this, doing the counting in your “thinking” voice, which has a sort of surreal effect.

leaves divider



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18/60 The five second shower




Here’s a physical warm-up we learned on our training day last week;


The Five Second Shower

hold a pretend bar of soap in on hand, and rub your hands together as though you are making a lather

while you are doing this, explain that you are about to take a 5-second shower, starting at your head and working down to your feet. In order to make sure you take just five seconds, we will count down backwards.

Ready?       Go!      5 (head)   4     3     2     1 (feet)

Okay!       Start “lathering” again, while you explain that you are going to do a 4-second shower.

Ready?      Go!      4 (head)   3     2     1 (feet)

I expect you can guess what comes next – the children in my singing assembly could certainly work it out! You end up with a manic 1-second shower.

A bit of buzzing, a bit of sirening (singing on the sound ‘ng’ up and down in pitch), a bit of listen and copy, and we were ready to sing! The shower certainly created an energised feel to the start of the session.

birds on a branch divider

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