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 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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Everything in G major – Piano

Here you go – increased level of difficulty for the little ‘tune’ bits.

The idea is that you pick and choose what your student it ready for, and award points/stickers or ‘well done’s as appropriate.

Add your own fingering, write in possible solutions for the RH cadence, change chords and time signatures and LH accompaniment figures for the lead sheets – just do whatever seems good at the time! If the ‘hands together’ bits are too hard for sight reading, just do one hand at a time.

Everything in G major_0001I’ll test this out soon on some unsuspecting students…

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Everything in G major_0002

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The First Guitar Lesson

I did it! I survived!

We all did it and survived – it was a magnificent piece of planning and cooperation and teamwork.

not-so-serene swan

I’m talking about the first Whole Class Ensemble Session of the year with a cast of the class teacher, the music teacher (that’s me), the Teaching Assistant, and 29 eager seven-year-olds.

We planned out all the steps in advance – how we would get the guitars from the great guitar mountain in the corner of the classroom, and then the chairs, also from the classroom into the hall, and allocate the guitars (by size of child and size of guitar) and record who had which guitar, and still have time to actually play the guitars before the allotted 45 minutes were up.

In all the teaching I have ever done, it is not the actual teaching that has ever been difficult, but the distribution and packing away of instruments which has caused me the most grief. Nothing beats detailed planning.

In the end, we three adults micro-managed the children every step of the way. We controlled how they carried the guitars and where and how to place the guitars in a line ready for allocating them later. We explained, directed and organised how they fetched their chairs and placed them in rows, carefully spaced and angled so that there was less chance of hitting each other with the tuning peg end of the instrument.

Then we lined the children up, tallest at one end and smallest at the other, and allocated the guitars. While we were waiting to complete that task, I started a song with the ones who were keep their minds off wanting to unpack and get playing.

Abracadabra! All guitars allocated, all children seated, and we were ready to unpack with still fifteen minutes to go!

I steadily took them through gently playing each string in turn while chanting ‘Eddie Ate Dynamite Good-Bye Eddie’ (children don’t seem to mind the violent implications). We even got as far as identifying the three higher strings, just playing ‘Good-Bye Eddie’; this will stand us in good stead for when we start playing three string chords.

It was a fast-paced, physically and mentally tiring lesson to get all this hectic activity completed while maintaining a calm and disciplined environment, but we succeeded.

Roll on the next lesson – let’s hope we can keep this up.

more tea?

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Everything in C major

Almost everything.

The Music Hub I work for has revised the curriculum for each of the Stages in piano and keyboard teaching.

So I now find myself teaching things that I was never taught, rather I ‘acquired’ the knowledge much later on through various ‘light-bulb’ moments along the piano journey.

The ‘Stage 1’ requirements, roughly equivalent to ABRSM or Tinity Grade 1) now include such things as

Play a syncopated Tango style accompaniment using the triad chords I, IV and V to accompany a lead sheet in the keys of the scales using broken chords, composing your own intro/ ending

Wow! I couldn’t have done that at Grade 1! And how I wish I had been taught about chords in a systematic manner.

I’m thinking about what kind of resource would be useful for teaching this kind of thing; something along these lines? This is a two-page spread, covering scales, arpeggios, broken chords, chords, a ‘Grand Cadence, a couple of lines of very basic sight reading and then a simple lead sheet.

Everything C major_0001

Everything C major_0002


My idea is to work through the lines steadily, awarding stickers for each line completed. For pre-stage 1, I would do the scales hands separately, and keep some of the lines for later.

Dynamics, fingering, articulation can all be added as you go along.

When (If!) I create a sheet in G major, the first section would be very similar, but the sight reading would be slightly harder. For Stage 1, I suppose I would need to do sheets for C, G, D, F majors, A minor and D minor. That would deal with all the scales for the ABRSM grade, and get the sight reading and chord knowledge well advanced.

It wouldn’t be too hard; after all I can start by just transposing the whole of the C major sheet and then ‘titivating’ it a little.

Please help yourself to these pages if you think you would find them useful. And let me know what you think!

Snake keyboard divider

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On-line Learning

When I included a jazz standard in the list of pieces to learn for my Active Repertoire challenge (see this post, and Andrew Eales’ blogpost) I was reminded of the online jazz course I started at the end of last term.

I found it on a site called, When I went to the site I discovered that there seem to be hundreds of courses on a huge range of topics, offered by universities and colleges all over the world.

I had a good go at the Jazz Piano Stage 1 course earlier this Summer, offered by Goldsmith’s College, University of London. It is an excellent mix of video tutorials, downloadable scores and backing tracks, opportunities to listen to and learn from each other’s efforts uploaded to soundcloud, and encouraging comments from the online learner community. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to complete all the course, as life suddenly got busy. However I have really appreciated what I worked through, and have plenty of downloads to keep me going. Best of, all, take note of the words in the pink bar at the bottom of the screenshot;

Learn Jazz 1

Like most of the courses, it is completely free! The only catch is that your access to the course material disappears after a certain date, unless you pay a fee for unlimited access. However the courses do seem to come round again from time to time, and you may well be able to download a lot of the material.

The stage 1 and 2 Jazz piano courses are being advertised at the moment, along with various other music courses. I shan’t be signing up for any of them, as I’m about to start an online creative writing course (run by the Open University) in the next week or so… but I might find the score study course (Open University) very, very tempting. I’m thinking of putting my name down for the re-run in February next year.

Meanwhile, I shall be brushing up on some of the standards that I studied in Jazz 1, ready to add to the Autumn Active Repertoire List.

Happy Learning… it makes a refreshing change from always teaching.

leaves divider


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Active Repertoire

I follow, written by Andrew Eales. It is full of interesting ideas, which, although mainly piano focused, are useful for other instrumentalists as well.

Here’s a link to a recent post about Active Repertoire where you can also find a free download of the ‘Active Repertoire’ sheet.

The idea is that you should always have some pieces that you can perform at the drop of a hat, preferably by heart. I was caught that way recently in a school assembly when I was asked to play as the children came in, on a cheap and cheerful keyboard balanced across a couple of chairs.

My ‘active repertoire’ is very small, and consists mostly of my favourite Children’s pieces by Kabalevsky, Oh, and the opening theme and second theme of  ‘Fur Elise’, and most of CPE Bach’s ‘Solfegietto’. That was a bit of a nasty moment; I was rattling through, hoping the keyboard wouldn’t fall of the chairs, when I realised I didn’t know what came next. Luckily the children had left the hall by then so I could just come to a full stop.

But these are all pieces that I learned when I was about ten years old. Which is a long, long time ago!

30 Pieces for Children, Op. 27 By Dmitri Kabalevsky 9780793536276    G. Schirmer, C.P.E. Bach: Solfeggietto In C Minor. Piano Sheet Music        Für Elise - The 100 most beautiful classical Piano Pieces - Pianissimo series - piano

After so many years it is time for something new!

So I’m accepting the challenge that Andrew has issued; I just have to choose a couple of pieces that are

  • reasonably short (no-one wants to hear a whole sonata when they ask for ‘a tune’)
  • ‘easy-listening’ (not many of my acquaintance would enjoy Schoenberg)
  • reasonably well-known, like a Chopin Prelude, for example
  • maybe include a jazz standard
  • add a Christmas Carol, ready for December

I shall be encouraging my pupils to take up the challenge, so that they always have a tune ready to play to Grandparents and  Aunts and Uncles.

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