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Note Reading Reinforcement: Identifying Correct Intervals and Octaves

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Two challenges I’ve noticed students can have while playing piano are playing correct intervals and matching a note to the correct octave’s hand placement.

Identifying correct intervals:

Why is this a difficulty?

I believe sometimes it’s due to poor quality of sheet music or even students’ eyesight (perhaps some students could use a pair of reading glasses. At times students just need to pay good attention to the music by keeping focused and also by listening to themselves as they play. Often students think of notes individually without reading ahead or finding the relationships between notes and this can make playing correct melodies more difficult than needed.

What are some remedies?

Intervalic reading! Train students to almost subconsciously know the distances between notes. For example, an interval of a 2nd goes from a line to a space or a space to a line. One possible activity is to show a student 2 identical bass clef F notes and ask, “does the second note go up, down or stay the same?” Then find F and G flashcards and ask the same question, pointing out that in the first example the notes stayed on the same line while in the second example the first note is on a line but the second note moves up to the next space. Also, drilling the “anchor notes,” notes that students can use as their reference points such as G in the treble clef and F in the bass clef, is very helpful. If students are playing notes that are close but not quite what’s written, have them look at the slope of the music. Is it going down, up or does it curve? What intervals are within the music’s slope (remember to notice the lines and spaces!)? Is it mostly steps or skips? Are the notes written close to “anchor notes”? If so, how close? With both study and paying close attention students will improve by becoming more familiar with intervals and intervalic reading.

Playing in the Correct Octave:

Why is this a difficulty?

I believe sometimes it’s lack of familiarity with the teacher’s studio keyboard. Or maybe students struggle to find their starting notes before playing a piece because they are nervous or haven’t practiced as much as was needed. Students also tend to be familiar with a certain range of notes (usually close to middle C) or 5-finger positions (such as C and G) but when their pieces move out of their comfort zone they are unsure where to put their hands!

What are some remedies?

Do sight reading activities or repertoire pieces that are “outside of the box” with different starting notes and hand positions than students are used to. Also, use the whole keyboard. One way to do this is using lead sheets. Lead sheets are so flexible and students can play their left hand in broken arpeggios or in octaves down in the low range of the keyboard. They can also play the melody in octaves. Even though these lead sheet suggestions don’t require reading the higher or lower notes specifically, students can at least become more familiar with the keyboard as a whole.

When a student comes to a piece where he\she needs to read and play specific notes, however (such as the D above treble C), ask them, “which C is the D closest to, middle C, treble C or bass C?” Identifying middle, treble and bass C is important for confident playing. If students see an 8va or 15ma symbol and is unsure where to play, make sure they know note that’s written before the extra symbol was added and THEN have them move up or down. I find that usually when students are confused which octave to start in, they can often tell me the note but it’s more a matter of hand placement they are struggling with. Get familiar with the keyboard and with the various C’s as they are written in sheet music.

Reading notes better is important. It gives us greater freedom to enjoy music. Diligence and being grounded in the basics will yield encouraging results.

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Teaching Piano to Children Vs. Teaching Adults

I’ve taught piano lessons to both adults and children and decided to post a few similarities and differences that I’ve found.

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Teaching Piano to Children Vs. Teaching Adults

Lessons with Children:

  • Simple instructions! Rather than talking theoretically focus more on practical, easily achievable instructions such as, “please play middle C” or “please clap this rhythm.” use concrete analogies.
  • Make lots of music playing time. Keep the talking minimum and kinesthetic action to a maximum.
  • Teacher and parental decisions direct lessons. The parents are the ones paying for the lessons so follow their wishes as much as possible. Also, children need direction so the teacher must espeically guide young students.
  • Play lots of music games! Make sure the games teach a musical concept but try to find fun ones as lesson fillers.
  • Use an engaging method book. This varies according to a student’s age and ability. Find the one that works best for individual needs.
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Teaching Piano to Children Vs. Teaching Adults

Lessons with Adults:

  • Students make most decisions. As adults they are making a conscious decision to pay for and attend lessons so be attentive to their wishes.
  • Allow for busy schedules. Most adults already have quite full lives so keep this in mind while teaching.
  • Explain the “why.” Adults tend to want to learn theory. They need to play a lot as well but making connections between theory and application will help them as they study.
  • Be patient if student is shy to play. Sometimes adults only want to play some pieces during their lessons and learn other ones at home so if this is the case just focus on helping them become better self learners.
  • Use recognizable songs. While children enjoy this as well, adults especially like playing songs they’ve heard before.

 

Lessons with Students of any Age:

  • Teach both children and adults to enjoy music. If they don’t enjoy what they are playing they will not make much progress.
  • Play quality music. Make sure the repertoire they are learning is teaching them things that they need to learn when they come across other new pieces. Be systematic in teaching and try to not leave any learning gaps. Don’t just focus on sight-reading to the neglect of rhythm, etc.
  • Use the whole lesson time. Make the whole lesson count.

These are just a few similarities and differences to keep in mind. Hope you’ve found them helpful.

 

Review: Bastien Piano Method Books

Bastien Piano Method Books

The Bastien piano series are a very useful tool for piano students. Although the Bastien Method is not my go-to method book for my personal studio (my preferred method at the moment is Faber), I use this series as supplementary material and have used it as a main method book in the past when I saw that students had a good ear for music. In addition a music school I worked for in Italy used these books regularly, so it is a reputable method series for those studying classical music. I do not currently own the upper levels of Bastien but am familiar with some early level books, so my review is based only on those.

Bastien Method Books are well-suited to ear players. Students will enjoy learning about intervals and chords in the primer book. Soon after they will learn about major and minor pentascales. Learning scales and chords as an ear player is important because with an understanding of chord progressions (both tactically and theoretically), students can better compose their own music. Tactically, students will learn a simple formula for playing basic chords in a variety of keys. Theoretically, students will understand, for example, why a left hand C chord is needed when the right hand is playing C, E and G in a melody.

The Bastien Method Books are well suited to a variety of students, particularly as supplementary material. Although I wouldn’t recommend it much for small children due to it’s quick pace, school aged children and even adults can benefit from the Bastien books. One part of the Bastien series which I’ve used often are exercises in the Theory 1 book which teach students how to play a right hand notated melody while playing a chordal accompaniment (following the I & V7 symbols). These exercises are a great introduction to lead sheets! As far as the lesson books go, pieces included are pleasing to the ear, including both major and minor sounds. Students will also enjoy the early sense of satisfaction when they play familiar songs using both hands even from the primer level.

As a teacher I enjoy using the Bastien series as a springboard to teach various theory concepts mentioned above. Rhythm is introduced very quickly in this series so if you do use it be sure students truly learn the rhythms rather than copy what they hear you play or what they know a popular tune sounds like. All in all I think Bastien books are a great aid to piano teaching and study!

Should I Learn How to Read Sheet Music?

Being able to read music notation opens up a whole world to piano students. While many musicians can play beautifully without knowing how to read sheet music, learning how to read sheet music will enhance their musical skills.

Benefits of Reading Sheet Music

Reading Sheet Music

  • By learning how to read sheet music students can play virtually any piece of notated music.
    When a student learns how to read notes, rhythm and other musical markings, sheet music will be understandable. Music is very orderly and structured, so there is no need to be confused at all the symbols. Start by learning simple rhythms and commonly used notes and then gradually adding on to that knowledge until almost any combination of notes, rhythms and  markings make sense.

    Reading Sheet Music

    Music Theory

  • By learning how to read sheet music students can visually see theory principles at work.
    Reading sheet music allows a student to play other peoples’ compositions and to see how these composers applied the “rules” of music into their compositions. Rather than simply learning theory principles (ex. chord progressions) in an isolated manner, students can view how individual theory principles work in a broader musical context.

    Composition

    Composition

  • By learning how to read sheet music students find ideas from other composers for their own compositions.
    As students play sheet music they will find musical combinations that sounds pleasant to the ear. Students can then transfer these ideas into their own compositions, improvisations, or accompaniments. Musicians benefit not only from listening to well-played music but also from playing beautiful music scores by skillful composers.

Is Your 4-6 Year-Old Ready to Start Piano Lessons?

The answer varies depending on each child.  Some considerations parents should make before enrolling their young child into lessons are:

  • Can your child read?
    This is not necessary but helpful. If the child cannot read the parent(s) should be extra involved in practice time during the week. I like using easy-to-follow method books for young children. At the moment my top choice for young children is the Alfred All-in-One series (book one).

Alfred All-in-One, book 1

  • Can your child differentiate between left and right?
    Student need to know which hand to use while playing pieces, particularly those pieces that switch between the left and right hands. At the moment I have a student who didn’t know the difference between his right and left hand when we started lessons, so sometimes before he starts a piece I tell him, “raise your right hand” or “raise your left hand.” He seems to enjoy it when I ask him to do this.
    hand-symbol-silhouette
  • Can your child obey instructions and sit still?
    Parents can prepare their students for piano lessons by training them to behave at home. Between the ages of 4-6 children process and soak up new information very quickly, so if a young student is obedient and listens well to his/her piano teacher, the lesson time can be very profitable!
    child

I would recommend 20-30 minute lessons for most young children. For me it’s handy when an older brother or sister is also taking lessons because then I can vary the length of the younger child’s piano lesson. If 20 minutes is plenty for the younger student, I just add on 10 minutes to the older sibling’s lesson.

Kinesthetic activities are very helpful to keep things moving and interesting. I have young students do theory pages during class. Flashcards which involve questions about note values are also useful. Also, since young students love touching piano keys, I have them find and play individual notes (ex. “find a C/do, please;” “please play an A/la for me”).

Young children have a lot of potential, and especially with parental involvement they can profit from music lessons at an early age. Teachers who give lessons to this age group need to have a lot of energy! However, having young students enrolled in lessons is a fun and unique journey where both the student and teacher will learn a lot.

Melodic Dictations

Melodic Dictations

Melodic Dictations

Students who choose to take graded examinations or who decide to go to college for music study will most likely be required to write out melodic dictations. In a melodic dictation a student listens to a melody multiple times and writes out the notes and rhythms that they hear. Students write their final copy on staff paper, filling in the time signature, key signature, bar lines, etc. While this task may seem very challenging at first as the notes rush along, there are ways to train and become more adept at melodic dictations.

  • Always keep tonic in mind.
    The tonic note will be given before the melody begins. Students must imprint this note in their mind as it is the most important “anchor note.” Another important note is the fifth scale note above tonic.
  • Learn Sol-fah
    Sol-fah is a hug aid for melodic dictations because sol-fah is consistent throughout any key (when using a moveable do). Students will be thinking of sol-fah rather than thinking of individual letter names. Sight-singing in sol-fah helps imprint the sol-fah intervals into a student’s mind.
  • Listen for the intervals.
    Another aid in addition to sol-fah is teaching students tunes which use specific intervals. For example, an ascending major 6th uses the notes from the beginning of the song “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.”
  • Write a rough draft
    Students should use spare staff paper to write a draft of the dictation rather than doing everything on the same page. The markings on the draft should be minimalistic with light pencil marks which can easily be erased.
  • Understand harmony
    I recently spoke with a guitar player who found the harmonic progression of a song useful in helping him decipher the melody in a dictation. This may be helpful for some students but they must ensure that they are also listening for the individual melodic notes and not simply doing guess work.
  • Find the rhythm
    Students should realize that rhythm is not the first thing to look for in a melodic dictation. The most important part of the dictation is the melody. Pencil in the melody first and add in the rhythm during spare moments. One trick for focusing on notes while figuring out the rhythm is to place notes that have a longer duration farther apart on the draft and to place notes that sound shorter close together. This will be a reminder of the general duration of the notes and will make filling in the specific durations easier for students.
  • Never stop moving.
    Melodic dictations end very quickly and time is of the essence. If, for example, a student cannot remember the first half of the melody, he or she should fill in notes from the last bar. If none of the notes come to mind at a certain point, he or she should work on the rhythm. Students should never stop thinking and moving their pencil. Keep as focused as possible while working diligently.

Here are some free resources from the internet:

http://pitchimprover.com/–In this exercise a piano is shown with lit up keys. Decipher the melody that is played (only the lit up keys will be options) and click on the correct piano keys.

https://www.teoria.com/exercises/ne.php–The “note dictation” section of this website allows practice of note recognition.

http://trainer.thetamusic.com/en/content/melodic-dictation–This website offers melodic dictation games.

http://horninsights.com/telling-intervals-with-tunes/–For a list of intervals with related tunes, visit this webpage.

Ear Players Part 2: Teaching Auditory Ear Players

Teaching Ear Players

Teaching Ear Players

 

Encourage auditory ear players to learn independently: Auditory ear players have a great knack for copying music. Sometimes a student struggles and struggles through a piece until the teacher plays the song for them. After just one or two listens of how the song is supposed to sound the student then proceeds to learn the tune quickly (though the rhythm will probably be a little off).  I would almost never play anything for an auditory ear player because it will discourage them from reading notes on their own. One of the rare instances that playing for an ear player is acceptable is to demonstrate various “touches” or phrasing that their keen ears can pick up and copy.

Encourage auditory ear players to sight-read: A good way to show students that they can read music is by notating something the student has made up. Usually an ear player will play music that is far more complicated that what they can sight-read. One musician and teacher taught me the following phrase to tell students who struggle with note reading: “If you can play this, you can read music for this.” Students who have good pitch will also have an advantage if they have intervalic reading skills (sight-reading notes by intervals rather than note names). An interesting article on this topic is found on Joy Morin’s website: http://colorinmypiano.com/2013/06/03/the-role-of-intervalic-reading-when-reading-music/. If students see the interval of a third written in their music but their ears hear the interval of a fourth, the students’ ear would be a great advantage to correcting the wrong note.

Encourage auditory ear players to engage in improvisation: Do a duet with students. One example is the teacher playing broken chords (the I, IV and V chord of the key you choose) and the student making up a 5-finger pattern improvisation. After ending the improvisation swap positions and have the student play the chords and the teacher play the melody. This exercise will aid students to have better muscle memory of 5-finger patterns and of chord patterns.

Allow auditory ear players to play their creations: I’ve found that ear players who love creating music enjoy moments to break away from sheet music. Ask these students if they have copied or created anything new during the week. Allow them to play their creation in the last few lesson minutes to encourage the lesson ending on a good note.

If you are a teacher, encourage auditory ear players to use their strengths (ex. improvisation, composition, musicality) and to work on their weaknesses (ex. sight-reading). If you are a parent or student, realize that pitch can improve through practice. Practice playing and singing familiar songs without sheet music and add chords for further practice.

Please note: Certain students have a knack for copying things that they hear but struggle with note-reading. These students are auditory ear players.To learn more about ear players, see the article and the first comment from the article “Ear Players Part 1: Discovering Ear Players.”

Ear Players Part 1: Discovering Ear Players

Below are three things that I look for during lessons to discover if a student is predominantly an ear player:

How does a teacher discover that a student is ear player?

  Ask the student if he or she likes to make songs up. Sometimes students are excited to show what they can play by ear but others won’t offer that information until asked because they are shy. Ask a parent if their child likes to play around on the keyboard at home, whether by composing original music or by playing familiar tunes. If the answer is “yes,” there is a good indication that the child has a keen musical ear.
(Note that memorizing sheet music is different that hearing something from a cd or the radio and copying it on the piano without any helps. The child that memorizes may not be an ear player, but the child who copies songs without music is most likely an ear player.)

  Discover how a student learns his or her pieces. If a student struggles and struggles through a piece until they hear it played from the teacher (at which point the student plays amazingly better!), they most likely are relying on their hearing rather than on the printed music. I once received a good piece of advice: Do not play an ear player’s musical piece for them as an example. Force the students to discover how the music sounds for themselves without any helps!

  Be on the lookout for rhythmic deficiencies. Although ear players tend to get creative in their rhythms, I tell students to play exactly what is written on the sheet. Playing precise rhythm is very important and students need to have a good understanding of note values, time signatures and strong/weak beats. It is all right, however, to sometimes change the note durations in method books to suit a student’s rhythm. For example, sometimes an ear player adds a dotted rhythm. The teacher can make two crotchets (quarter notes) into one dotted crotchet + one quaver (eighth note) by adding a dot to the first crotchet and then adding a quaver line onto the other crotchet. This should only be an occasional variation, however, and it is a good opportunity to explain the theory of dotted rhythms.

If you are a parent and notice that your child enjoys making pieces up, develop this skill by encouraging the child to play pieces by ear and to learn theory very well. If you are a piano student and you notice that you have an aptitude in hearing the intervals that make up songs, continue playing by ear and getting more proficient in this area of music.  If you are a teacher, feel free to comment below on ways that you’ve discovered ear players during lessons.

What Kind of Lessons do Piano Students Need?

The term “student-centered” learning is quite popular at the moment.  These lessons tend to be more engaging for the student and have many benefits.  I believe that teachers should keep their students’ needs in mind as they prepare lessons and materials, but this does not mean that every student want is met.  While certain lessons will be quite exciting, others may be more laborious because the student is struggling with understanding a concept such as rhythm or reading notes.  Although the main burden of study falls on students and their parents (I think of myself as a facilitator), teachers have a responsibility to keep pupils’ needs in mind.  Here are a few suggestions:

–Teachers should first of all be self-controlled and patient.  Don’t bring your personal irritations into the lesson.  Also, be patient even if the student is not responding as you would like.  Sometimes eye contact is the best way to get a students’ attention.  Also, rather than becoming irritated, be honest using calm words.
–Laugh with your students.  Stay on topic while enjoying the lesson!
–Be sure that students understands concepts.  Consistent quizzing of single concepts helps show where students have blind spots.  For example, if during a flashcard review of treble clef notes a student is responding correctly quickly (and can play the note on the keyboard), he or she most likely understands how to find these notes and his confusion in a musical piece may be a misunderstanding of something else like the bass clef notes.  If a student does is not answering the note flashcard quiz correctly, then the teacher has assessed a need that must be met in learning treble clef notes better.
–Maximize a student’s strengths.  If a student shows talent as an ear player, consider chordal-based method books.  Ear players tend to make up their own pieces of music and the teacher should ask if they like making up music since sometimes students are too shy to mention it themselves.  If a student is very precise and is good at reading music, focus more on classical music.  Every student is different and as teachers work with students individually, both teacher and pupil will enjoy the lessons more.
–Lead students to act independently during lessons.  How else will a student be able to practice correctly each day at home?   Students should be able to transfer concepts to other pieces of music.  When I ask a question (for example: “Which note is this?”) I often ask students “How do you know for sure that your answer is the right one?”  If they know that the note I’m showing them is definitely a G/Sol because it’s above the F/Fa “anchor note” in the bass clef, I am pleased with their answer.
Finally, include a variety of skills in every lesson.  Functional skills such as sight-reading, transposition and ear training are important for every student.  Group work encourages students to learn from each other.  Technique is important for all pupils.  Teach what is needed and enjoy each lesson!