I’ve just finished a week of video music lessons during which New Zealand began its lock down! Phew, made it. And so did my pupils.  There were very few who didn’t take me up on the offer.

I was impressed with how quickly everyone got on board with it. We were able to get last week’s review listened to and this week’s new material learned for the most part. There were some technical glitches at times, but we are all going to go into next week’s lesson better prepared.

Last year a lovely family, 3 boys of whom learn piano from me, were living overseas. We had Zoom lessons all year and it all worked out pretty well. They came to my home before the lock down this week, but now, after less than a term of lessons face to face, we are about to go back on line again.  Thanks to them I was definitely much more ready for this week.

 

Things that helped in the process:

  • Having light from a window from behind the pupil’s piano made it harder for me to see what they were doing. Once we adjusted that, the overall light on the screen was hugely improved.
  • Having their device up higher than the piano at an angle similar to where I usually sit helped.
  • Where I would normally give them music they didn’t have in a lesson, I was able to send .pdf copies by email.
  • It was good to be able to make sure everyone was set up correctly at their instrument in their home setting. This was especially helpful for younger ones who were just new this term.
  • It was easier than I thought to do a cello lesson, because the camera for the pupil was on the music stand, and therefore much simpler to set up than for the piano/keyboard lessons.

 

Expectations going forward

I think, once the tech side and angle of the device is sorted, we can have a pretty normal lesson. I can show some things from my keyboard, though perhaps not quite as well as during face to face lessons. I didn’t use two cameras for most of this week, so I’ll have another go at that. During last year’s overseas video lessons the connection seemed to glitch more with two cameras, but I think it may work okay for local lessons. This will help when I am teaching the learning by ear parts of my curriculum, also for showing detailed fingering or creative ideas.

I can see that it will be a help to be able to use video lessons to make up missed lessons in the future. With a new familiarity around a  video lesson there should be more confidence to do this.

For new (beginner) pupils it has been harder to convey what to do, because the expectations of the way I do things has not yet been fully established. Generally, a full term face to face with new pupils would be much more preferable for both parties, if possible. With having to go into video lessons so soon, we have had to limit some things to the most manageable. Maybe that’s where two cameras would have made a bigger difference.

When I teach at schools, there are often other activities that force music lessons go to the back of the queue. Missing a weekly lesson makes more of a difference to a child’s progress than most people realise. I’ve offered Zoom lessons before for missed lessons, but not often been taken up on them.  Maybe that will change. We know that necessity is the mother of invention. It is so good to be able to get some positive wins from the enforced stay at home.

 

One of the things I have noticed among my pupils this year is a reluctance to sing along with their music while they play.  I’ve written a few blogs on the importance of singing when learning music, but I think it is one of those perennial issues that needs revisiting from time to time.

Once the rhythm has been sorted by counting the beat out loud as he or she plays, the beginner should move on to singing the lyrics often found in beginner music. Some beginners really enjoy this part, but I have seen there are a few reasons why others don’t want to do it.

 

What are the reasons some people don’t want to sing when learning the piano?

  • They are embarrassed to sing in front of someone else
  • They simply don’t sing, not even along with their favourite recording stars
  • They are okay with singing, but find doing two things simultaneously, such as playing and singing, tricky
  • The words may seem trite for their age group
  • They may feel it isn’t necessary to learning how to play the piano.

 

Why should we sing as we play?

It helps us listen to the note and pitch it. This in turn helps us get a sense of where the melody is going. I have noticed with new beginners who are keen to impress that, even if they find it difficult at first to sing along, they quickly get quite good at it and it becomes habitual, especially if it is expected from the beginning. Their singing actually improves as they listen, play and sing the notes as they go through the piece. 

It helps us better remember what we are learning. This is because of using a ‘total physical response’ approach to learning. In other words, the more body parts involved, the deeper the establishment of what is being learned. We are already using our eyes and our sense of touch. By singing we are vocalising it as well.

It keeps us aware of where we are up to. One of the challenges of learning to read music is keeping going from one note to the next. Singing along with the music is one way to help new pianists realise they are stopping and starting in unnatural places. So, even if they are not used to looking for the next note very well, they are aware that they need to keep going.

It helps with keeping a steady beat to the music. When we sing the song, we get a sense that the music is not just random notes. There is a flow from one note to another. Singing alongside reading the notes will help when it comes to counting the beat out loud when learning a new piece. This helps with that problem of doing two things at once. If we get into the habit of doing that in the early stages, it helps when there is more to think about as the music gets more challenging.

It helps us locate the phrases in the music. I was explaining to someone this week that a player of a wind instrument is more aware of phrases because they provide natural breathing places in the music.  But any music needs “breathing” places. When we sing the words that go with a piece of music we can often see where the music reflects the words of a sentence as one little melody that can stand on its own. Lyrics are usually written in for beginner pianists to show this.

We can find natural places to practice the music in chunks. When we are aware of the phrases it makes it easier to find a small section to practice on its own, rather than just starting at the top of the piece and playing to the end and then doing all that again. Practicing to play smaller sections completely correctly is much more manageable. I often find that a pupil with more of a perfectionist approach gets frustrated that they can’t play something correctly from start to finish. They are likely to always go back to the beginning if they make a mistake. Consequently, the end of the piece gets less attention this way. If they practice perfectly one small phrase at a time until it is correct and then move on to the next, they can keep that very helpful perfectionist approach one phrase at a time and get successfully to the end without frustration.

Singing improves the music. On numerous occasions when I’ve been playing in an orchestra, the conductor would encourage someone to sing the melody they were playing. Sometimes the whole orchestra would join in and sing it. Every time, the music always sounded better after doing this. When we sing, we put those natural louds and softs into the music and flow from one note to the next. Instrumental music needs to include those things too.

Pianists often need to be able to sing along to what they are playing in all sorts of settings. A few examples could be: introducing a new song to the band, leading corporate singing in church or at a community event, teaching a song to a school class or choir, Christmas carols at a family gathering, etc. And it is good to get comfortable with it right from the start. If we get used to singing in front of our piano teacher (the most sympathetic person in the world to you doing it!), it will give us a step towards confidence in all sorts of singing we do in life. I often sing along with my pupils as well, so they don’t feel they are out on their own doing so. If your child is learning piano it would be great if you get them to let you sing along with them too. Give them an early start at accompanying others singing around the piano.

Last, but not least—and actually the whole point of why we play in the first place—

it helps us enjoy the music! There is much out there to suggest that singing releases endorphins – chemicals in the brain that lessen anxiety and help us feel good. All this is really useful if we are stressed about our piano playing. If you don’t like the words of the song, make up your own or at least sing “la-la-la”. You never know, it may be the beginnings of making up your own songs!

 

How to make it happen

  • Sing along with your child as they do the singing part in practicing their pieces.
  • Have them teach a family member their latest “piano song”.
  • If it really is a difficult thing to encourage and you sense a push back on it with your child, don’t make a thing of it, but have it as part of the reward system of various completed tasks at the piano. Give more credit for the more difficult tasks and include singing along to their pieces as one of those.
  • Find one of the reasons above on why we should sing as we play that most suits the person learning, and use that when explaining how it is valuable to their learning.
  • Be encouraged that if they don’t like hearing themselves singing, that is going to improve as they play along. Besides, the piano playing covers up the singing in a way, so it doesn’t come across as all that noticeable.
  • For those embarrassed to sing in front of others, give the space for them to do it without others in the room, just as long as they still do it.

 

I am sure my early song writing attempts came out of this usual activity of singing along as I played my piano pieces. I’m sure it was also a contributing factor to learning early on how to sing in tune. Whether you are learning to play as an adult or whether you are encouraging your child, let me encourage you to develop a love of singing as part of your piano playing. I am certain you will feel all the better for it.

Have you ever had a musical experience that was a ‘Wow moment’, one that got you really excited, so much so that it acted like a trigger, propelling you into learning something new? 

Maybe it was an inspiring performance that made you want to become a performer too.

Perhaps it was a particular artist you admired whose music really resonated with you.

Or maybe it was the tone colour of a particular instrument that drew you in that direction.

 

I remember such a trigger that really propelled me into a whole new level in my love of music.

As a teenager I heard the piece of music Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. American folk probably know it well. But I’d been raised in New Zealand on a mostly classical diet of music. I was dabbling with playing in a popular style of the day and playing by ear at the time. The thing that caught my attention was the fun, jazzy harmony, along with the fact it was a piece for piano and orchestra. I went along to the library to listen to a full version of it on an LP (long playing record, back when vinyl was the only medium available!) and see the score.

I was absolutely hooked from the clarinet glissando at the beginning to the flashy piano arpeggios and fat chords at the end.  I could also see that I would be able to play some parts of the 29 page piano piece with my current level of playing and, significantly, I had finished school and was working during a gap year. With no formal study driving what I had to play, here was something I really wanted to play. Eventually, I did get to play it all, although some parts were not that flash or as fast as it was supposed to be.

 

Here’s a link to a piano and orchestra performance, along with the score for the two piano version, (where one piano would be representing the orchestra). George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

There is a piano version that combines both, which was what I learned from.

 

After all the formal training, this trigger was more significant than I realised at the time. It was what actually propelled me into wanting to compose music, so delighted and fascinated as I was by Gershwin’s harmonies and rhythms. This led to my interest in following through with completing a music degree, something I never thought I’d be bothered with after grinding through subjects I didn’t enjoy at high school.

 

So, as your young ones learn music this year, look out for the opportunities to give them learning triggers that will impact their motivation to really get into it.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Check out performances of artists your child enjoys and go to live perfomances where possible – either as an incentive for reaching a particular goal, or just for the fun of it.
  • Give them opportunities to hear a range of music around the level they are playing at on their instrument – maybe find some on You Tube or from others at school.
  • Find music for them to play in a style they like. Even if they stay with that style for a while, it will be better for their long term love of music than to always play what is not their favourite. Once a mother told me her son loved Für Elise but she was sick of hearing the first part played over and over again. So I wrote a little piece called A Companion for Elise which seemed to help. (Let me know if you would like a copy of it and I’ll send the .pdf to you.)
  • Get them to join some sort of music group. Playing with others is often a big motivating trigger.

 

Has there been a learning trigger that really worked for you? It doesn’t have to only be in the area of music, because we can still get good insights that can help with music learning from all sorts of experiences. It might trigger some good ideas to inspire the musicians among us, at the very least.  

I was chatting with a busy mum this week who works two jobs from 7:30am to 6pm. We asked each other what we were doing for the holidays. She said she just wanted to be at home with her family and enjoy her children.  So many folks are exhausted at this time of year and just need to chill and have a rest! (Actual chilling is a bit tricky in our part of the world as we hit Summer, and in our little township fire restrictions are now in place. But for some of you reading this it probably is a bit more chilly as you look forward to a winter Christmas.)

Whatever the hemisphere, ‘chilling’ involves rest.  How are you going to rest this season? Maybe you will spend some quality time with your family, catch up with old friends, or find some time and space to sit with a good book.

As the Christmas season gets under way I’ve been listening to a playlist of Christmas songs that I particularly like. Included there are delightful arrangements by Pentatonix, a very talented acapella group you have probably heard on the radio or over music speakers at the mall. Their harmonies and skillfully constructed layering are well worth a closer listening to though, and with YouTube clips like the following you can also see how the singers bring their parts in too.

[Official Video] Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Pentatonix

 

[Official Video] Mary, Did You Know? – Pentatonix

 

 

There is so much delightful Christmas music out there which I enjoy as I look forward to a change in pace.  I’ve also had fun arranging some very simple versions of carols at the request of some of my piano pupils. Mostly they are just the melody, or together with a simple second part.

I thought I’d like share with you God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen—one of the arrangements I did this week. It is at about a grade 1 level. I like to use chromatic harmonies. You can see this in 2 places in this arrangement, with the left hand descending passage in the first 2 lines and then just a touch in bar 14 in the left hand again.

If you consider yourself a beginner pianist, here are a few tips to help you.

  • The key is D minor, so remember to play all B’s as B flats.
  • Notice the fingering and keep it the same every time you play it. If you make sure your right hand 3rd finger is always on the F’s, the fingering for the whole melody works quite nicely. This is because the melody is completely built on the natural D minor scale.
  • Go slowly—this song can sound beautiful at any speed.
  • Practice the hands separately 1 line at a time before putting the hands together.
  • If you find playing hands together too hard, just work out the melody in the treble only.

If you just want to listen to it and sing along with the music score, you can do that too because I’m including a printed copy and an audio version of the arrangement for you.

I’d love to know how you get on—just  a quick sentence in the comments below. Thanks.

 

However you spend your build up to Christmas, I do hope you can take some time to rest a while  enjoying some merry music.

May God bless your family at Christmas and in the coming New Year.

 

Bellbirds are among the treasures of the New Zealand bush. Perhaps not the most spectacular of birds in appearance—they are small, green and quite hard to spot in the forest—but, wow, can they sing! I always feel I’m on holiday when I hear bellbirds, and (I just can’t help myself) I often find I’m working out their melodies and imagining a piece of music I’ll co-write with them.

Last weekend we went away for a much needed break from screens and routines. We took our campervan a few hours drive from our home to a restful area called Peel Forest. We knew of the lovely bush walks there, several of which we hadn’t done before. Bellbirds are heard throughout the bush there, with their melodies varying from one area to another. As soon as we entered the bush on one particular walk one of the locals sang its melodious song. I managed to record it on my phone:

It was echoed by other bellbirds around the walk: some sang the complete tune, some seemed to have only learned 1 or 2 notes of the main theme, and others had added a simple coda to it. Every now and then they would sing one after another in an antiphonal style. This reminded us of the time on a walk much nearer home, when we stopped awestruck at the symphonic beauty of a chorus of bellbirds singing the same melody in unison and other bellbirds across the bushes answering them.

Robin thought the song sung on last weekend’s bush walk was reminiscent of the melody a couple of my pupils learned on violin and cello respectively this year – Minuet 2 by Bach.

 

In our western music we don’t include birdsong as part of our diatonic scale system, but I remember learning in my ethnomusicology studies about some cultures that absolutely include birdsong as part of their music system.

Nevertheless, many classical composers over the years have been inspired by birdsong. Respigi’s “The Birds” comes to mind as just one example.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YJ55DWCc-s

And every child’s music book seems to have a ‘Cuckoo Song’ in it somewhere.

 

It’s not surprising that bird songs are popular. Birds are natural singers and they do it so well as part of fulfilling their role in the grand scheme of things. The dawn chorus is an especially inspiring soundscape at the start of the day. For me, it is as though the birds begin their day encouraging any listeners to thank the Creator for the new day like they do: with a heart bursting with song.

We all have a song, as it were, in life. Sometimes we know what it is, but some of us are still trying to work out the notes. Whatever stage your song is at, don’t stop singing it. Someone near you needs to be encouraged by your tune.