My title takes me back to language learning days in Asia when we used Tom and Elizabeth Brewster’s Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) method. It was a practical guide, applicable to learning any language, without getting bogged down. Learning a language can be overwhelming at times. The main idea was to learn a phrase, a question or other useful expression and then go and find a range of real people to practice it on. The repetition established the bit of language, which in turn became something to build on with further additions.

I think learning a musical instrument is overwhelming at times too.  So I thought I’d look at some easy, practical little ideas you could “use a lot” this week, applying them to something you or your child might be learning.

Bite sized chunks

Rather than playing a piece from start to finish with lots of stumbles, break it into smaller sections – maybe 1 or 2 bars (measures) and practice each section slowly until it is easy. Often it may be a line of music or even a short phrase.

Playing loud and soft (dynamics)

  • Make scales interesting by playing them gradually louder as you go higher and softer as you go lower.
  • Choose a melody from a piece you are learning and get louder as the melody goes higher and softer as it goes lower. Keep the rhythm the same.
  • Choose a favourite piece. If you struggle more to play softly, see how softly you can play it. If you naturally play gently, see how loudly you can play it. Then to bring it back to balance play it somewhere in between. Keep the speed the same whether you play loud or soft.
  • Play a broken triad (a 3 note chord) such as the C major chord C E G. Play softly for the first and lowest note, a little louder for the second and louder for the highest note. Do it until they are evenly louder than the previous note. Change to another chord or play it in a different position and do the same.

Same piece/different sounds

For those learning on electronic keyboards one of the best ways to get your child to play something more than once is to allow them to play their pieces with different musical instrument sounds. (“Fireworks” and  ”gunshots” don’t count.)

 Note reading 

Every day for a week choose a different line of music from something you are learning and read the note names backwards (i.e. from right to left).

Separate hands

Simplify difficult passages (or anything you can’t play perfectly) by playing with separate hands first. When you can play each hand correctly 3 times in a row, put them together. Hint: keep the beat the same tempo for each hand even if one hand is easier. This makes it much easier when you put them together.

Fun with tricky rhythms

Find a tricky rhythm in something you are learning. It may be only a bar or two.

  • Clap and count it out until it becomes really easy.
  • Try playing it all on one note on your instrument.
  • Tap it on something in every room in the house.
  • Give it some words to help you remember it.
  • Now come back and see if you can play it with the notes it started with.


When you know a short piece really well in one key, transpose it to other keys you know. This is where it is helpful to know your scales in order to understand key structures.


None of this is exhaustive. I’m merely brushing the surface of a myriad of ways we can break down our music learning to keep us engaged and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Whatever activities work for you – and these apply for any aged learner – they need to be manageable enough to get quick wins and thus experience progress. They may end up becoming a useful set of tools you will use often. Probably one of my most valuable tools has become ”3 times perfect in a row” because I can apply it to so many different aspects of my music learning.

Let me know what was the most helpful little idea here for your situation, or if you have a little idea that you use a lot that you’d like to pass on to the rest of us.


I was so sad to hear of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia this week, a city we were based in from 1988-93. Having also experienced losing our own home in the Christchurch earthquake of 2010, we know in a small measure that it can take years to recover, even from a lesser quake. The recovery from this for the people of Palu, Donggala and the west coast of Sulawesi is likely to be longer and much more challenging than what it was for us here.



We have so many memories from our time there, most of them positive, but few centered around music. Here is one memory of some stunning musicians we came across in Palu.


It was a fairly normal Sunday morning, a typical Palu day around 34°C and we went to church as usual. What was unusual was that there was to be a visiting choir at the service. Many Indonesian people love singing and are good at it, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to hear.

As they filed in I noticed that our hostess from our days of learning Indonesian was in the choir. We had lived with her family for 6 months while learning Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t know that she was a singer as such, so that didn’t particularly raise my expectations. They were to sing unaccompanied. (There was a piano in the church, one of only 15 in the whole city. A piano tuner used to come once a year from another place to tune them. Anyway, I’m digressing.) It was quite normal for choirs to sing acapella.

The conductor was a young man who looked not much more than 15. I thought this is going to be interesting. And then they all opened their mouths and the first chord sent a ripple down my spine. The harmony, the volume! It was stunning. I had never heard such a magnificent choir. Not one person let the side down and it was total commitment that produced an incredible sound from start to finish. Then I found out that they were the representative choir for the province – people from various churches around that region who were preparing to participate in the national choir competition in Yogyakarta.

The following week I was contacted by our former hostess to ask if I would come and accompany the choir for a practice. They had never played with a piano, but as part of the competition they had to have two of their pieces accompanied. I couldn’t help but think it was a shame to add a piano to their already excellent sound! But I agreed to see if I could help.

The young conductor turned out to be somewhere in his 20s and was incredibly skilled.  I marvelled at his musicianship and that of the choir who learned all their music from the Indonesian not angka system. It was all done with tonic-sol-fa and their musical score is shown with numbers, along with various dots and dashes to show rhythm. Fortunately for me the piano music was familiar western notation!

After a number of practices they got used to singing with a piano and I was invited to come with them to the national competition. Unfortunately, due to our work and upcoming trip to the village area, it just wasn’t going to work out for me to go. But their conductor told me later that he had learned enough to know what he was looking for when an accompanist was provided for them, and turned down two before he was happy with a third. They had never made it into the top half before, but that year this out of the way province came 5th out of 27 provinces in the national competition. I wasn’t surprised. I knew they had something special.


A search for a beautiful sound in our music is the same in every culture, even though what defines a beautiful sound is going to be different from place to place. Striving for excellence brings many rewards, and much is involved in getting there. If I can in some way inspire my pupils to play music beautifully, learn to play music they want to play and enlarge their outlook to discover other music to enjoy too, then I know they are well on the way to enjoying it for many years to come.

As I’ve been reflecting on this story of our time in Palu, I pray for the community, friends and co-workers who work with them as they go through the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks that we know from experience will likely continue for years.


Sorry, I don’t have  a photo (or a recording) of that magnificent choir. The other photos are of the Palu beachfront, Donggala waterfront (taken during our time there) and a meal with Palu friends.