Tag Archives: music lessons

The Benefits of Duets – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

I was lucky when I was learning the piano – my sister was also learning. Plus my Mum played. That meant I always had a duet partner available. Duets certainly have their challenges, but most of my memories of playing duets involve lots of laughter. My only complaint at the time was I always had to play the bottom part, which was usually keeping the beat and not as melodically interesting. Nevertheless, duets formed a significant part of our performing, particularly in our teenage years and were always fun.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSW

“Piano Duet” by Pamela Blaies (http://pamelablaies.com)

The method books I use to teach my beginners – and most method books on the market – have a teacher accompaniment that can be played along with the student. It not only ‘fills out’ the sound of their very basic piece for them and makes what they are playing sound much more impressive for them, but it also unknowingly begins to teach them the fundamentals of playing duets.

The benefits of playing piano duets are many and include:

  1. Developing listening skills – the only way your duet will be successful is if you are constantly listening to what the other person is playing to ensure you are staying together.
  2. Early accompanying skills – following on from developing listening skills, learning how to follow or catch-up to the other person can set up the quality skills of a good accompanist.
  3. Teaches good timing – good tempo needs to be kept by both parts or the piece won’t flow and will sound very disjointed. With a partner, you are more likely to maintain a steady pulse and keep going. Over time, you will gain more rhythmic constancy and learn to adapt to any tempo set by a partner.
  4. Teamwork and interaction – pianists usually spend a lot of time playing alone. Playing duets not only encourage interaction with others (as practising together is essential) but you also need to be working together as a team to ensure the piece flows beautifully.
  5.  Articulation and compromise – it’s not just about the correct notes and timing. Duet partners need to learn how to articulate their ideas for interpretation, and then learn to compromise these with the other person’s ideas. Duets teach students to listen carefully, ensuring the parts balance evenly and that articulation ideas passed between the two parts are precisely performed.
  6. Motivation and accountability – while the two players are working as a team, for kids playing duets, they usually want to make sure they don’t sound worse than their partner, so will try their hardest. If they don’t know their part, they may feel they are letting down their partner as they know both of them are accountable for the best result. This also encourages more focussed concentration.
  7. Increased confidence – for those students who are nervous about performing, having a performing buddy is often a much-needed confidence boost.
  8. Pedalling awareness – one person will be pedalling for the other, while the second person will be surrendering their pedal control. This needs to be negotiated and controlled.
  9. Duets are impressive –  audiences (particularly parents watching their children play a duet together) love duets; they sound full, rich and harmonious and watching two pianists play together in sync is entertaining.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWI still enjoy the fullness of sound a duet provides and regularly play a duet ‘together with myself’, where I record the Secondo (bottom part) on my digital piano and then play it back while I play the Primo (top part). Duets are certainly a special experience :-)

If you are considering piano lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

How Pianists’ Brains are Different – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

“Piano is the ultimate instrument in terms of skill and demand. Two hands have to play together simultaneously while navigating 88 keys. They can play up to 10 notes at a time. To manage all those options, pianists have to develop a totally unique brain capacity — one that has been revealed by science.”

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

Image courtesy of The Piano Kitchen

“Because both hands are required to be equally active for pianists to master their instrument, they have to overcome something innate to almost every person: right or left-handedness.”

Continue reading this great short article by Jordan Taylor Sloan to find out how they do this and why pianists brains are different.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.


Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly to My Hand – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Resources… resources… resources!!

Games, worksheets, iPad apps, flashcards…

The world of piano teaching has changed a great deal since the days I learned. These days kids seem to need more enticing and encouragement to learn. Perhaps this is because many of them are starting with piano at a much younger age. It may also be related to today’s kids being used to more instant results. Couple those reasons with the fact that the internet makes it much easier for teachers to share with each other their techniques and resources and the teaching world is awash with resource options.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

Sifting through them all can result in some interesting finds. One that I found early on – but didn’t then understand all the benefits of – is the ladybird (or ladybug, depending on where you are in the world) squeeze toy. Used mainly as a tool to explain and encourage correct hand position, it also has a host of other uses.

When a younger (under 10) student starts with me, they receive their very own ladybird. They name it (a favourite seems to be Lily) and use it every day in their practise routine.

As mentioned, the main selling point of the ladybird is to show correct hand position at the piano. The shape of the bug mimics the natural position of the hands if you let them fall by your sides, which is also the optimum position for playing the piano. Having this visual as well as something that allows them to physically feel the shape is of great benefit to those who struggle to hold their hand correctly.Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

The other main use of the bug in my studio is to help build strength in the fingers. This is achieved simply by using the ladybird as you would a stress ball and regularly squeezing it – slowly and steadily. This is usually why the kids are using their ladybird every day – to help build strength in their little fingers that are suddenly being asked to do a whole new set of tasks. As the strength builds, flexibility also grows.

This regular use allows them to really connect with their bug and also allows them to have something of theirs with them in their ‘practise nest’ at practise time. Using it away from the piano (for squeezing) shows the kids right from the start that playing the piano isn’t just about the physical act of connecting fingers to keys, but incorporates their mind and their muscles and can be worked on in various ways even when a piano isn’t around.

As their playing develops, the ladybird can also be used for reinforcement of other techniques (e.g. placing it on the back of their hand and seeing whether it stays there or tips off according to the style they are being asked to play) so it can continue to grow with them as they develop.

I keep my eyes open all the time for new tools and resources, because you never know when you might come across something that seems simple, but can be of great benefit.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

App Review “Blob Chorus” by Lumpty Learning – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Aural training – or developing ‘a good ear’ – is such an important part of becoming a musician. It helps with everything from being able to harmonise through to simply recognising if you’ve made a mistake. But not everybody is born with a naturally good ear and even those who are can still learn to better refine it.

So how do we help our students develop their aural skills without the drudgery of drills and exercises? We use fun apps!

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWBlob Chorus by Lumpty Learning is one such app, which introduces students to basic pitch recognition in a fun way. It is used in thousands of schools around the world because it also works well in a group setting, but its simplicity means it is also totally suitable for individual lessons.

The premise of the game is simple: a number of green blobs have formed a choir and they are singing for King Blob (who is purple and wears a crown). Each blob sings a note and then King Blob sings a note. The note sung by the king is the same as a note sung by one of the blobs. But which one? This is what you need to identify.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWAlthough the game always opens with the default of three blobs, you can set the game to as little as two (which is the best place to start). As you improve, you can increase the number of blobs in the choir. The maximum is eight blobs, which is very difficult.

If the incorrect blob is selected, that blob will explode, but you are able to select another blob and continue doing this until the correct blob is selected. At any time you can click the ‘hear blobs again’ button at the bottom to hear the remaining blobs sing their notes again.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWThe game is separated into groups of ten questions; after each set of ten you will receive a score and an overall rating.

Free on the Apple app store (but not for Android), the Apple version can be found here.

If you don’t own or have access to an iPad or Android tablet, never fear! The game is also available in a web version here; it just requires an internet connection.

They not only look cute, but they sound really cute as well 🙂

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

Going with the Flow – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Young Mr G was resisting participating in a composing activity. I use a system that tells a cute little story and each lesson of the system builds on that story and subtly introduces another technique the students can use in their composition. Mr G liked the story and the idea behind it but he wasn’t going to try it out. No way. He procrastinated. He changed the subject. He fiddled with other things. So I let it go for that week and we smoothly moved on to something else.

The next week Mr G turned up with two plain books that he had made in school that day. He had folded in half many sheets of plain paper, with a different coloured sheet on the outside of each one. He had experienced trouble stapling the middle and wondered if I could help. We stapled up the books and I had an idea… I asked him what his plans were for the books (he had no specific plans) and asked if perhaps he would like to use one in his lesson to compose some rhythms. He was so thrilled to have a purpose for one of his treasured books, he jumped at the opportunity. He chose his red book and composed his rhythm. I drew a staff in the book, he put his rhythm to music and his motif was born. The first composing lesson was done! He was so proud of his achievement, he even let me video it to share with my Facebook page (and normally he is not a fan of sharing).

The moral of the story? Go with the flow. 

I work hard on creating curriculums and I have a plan mapped out for each student. It’s important to know where we’re heading, plus it provides them with structure and a goal. But it’s all pointless if they aren’t engaged and sometimes that engagement can come from the most unlikely of sources. As a teacher, I need to be constantly alert for teaching opportunities. It may mean the lesson plan is derailed, but as long as they are learning something valuable and at their level, then the things in the lesson plan can always be caught up later.

Miss G (sorry, but their names really do start with the same letter) is a young teen who loves to experiment on the piano and she plays a lot of songs with a chord base. She has worked out a lot of this herself and will often show me what she has been doing. I realised though that she is solely playing by ear (a great skill in itself) but without understanding why she was playing those particular notes. So all of a sudden the lesson changed and turned into a conversation about chord construction, major vs minor triads and typical chord progressions (and even 12-bar blues). I wanted her to have the knowledge to work out where she should go next without having to try every note until one sounded right. It was important to ‘derail’ because playing this other music is what fuels Miss G’s love of piano when the slog of scales and exam prep becomes a chore.

Of course, this is harder with the students who are on an exam trajectory. If they want to reach their goals by exam time, their time is fairly tightly scheduled and because most of them don’t practise very much these days, lesson time is often spent going over things that should have been conquered during home practise. But even within those confines, it is important to be adaptable. Go with the flow.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.


Creating a Practise Nest – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Would you sleep soundly if the only place you could sleep was in the middle of your laundry while the washing machine and dryer were operating?

How productive would your work be if half the items you needed to do that work were not to hand?

If you were trying to study, would your effort be effective if you were banished to a cold, musty downstairs room away from the warmth and comfort of the main house?

Of course, we are more successful in what we do if we have everything we need, are in the best environment and are nice and comfy. It’s no different for our piano practise. If going to the piano is lonely, uncomfortable and disorganised, chances are you (or your child) won’t feel inclined to practise. What can we do to help?

We can create a ‘practise nest’. A place that is welcoming, comfortable and organised.

The wonderful folk at Teach Piano Today have provided some great tips for creating such a space. While they have been written for parents of piano kids, the same tactics apply for adult students; create a nest where you feel comfortable and have everything you need before you begin.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW1. When choosing a location for your piano, select a space that is lived-in, welcoming, and well-lit. Keep it close to ‘the action’ but not in the action. Your children will gravitate to the piano more often if it is in a central place in your home. Avoid bedrooms, basements and other ‘put away’ places. Feeling shut-off from the family while practising will inevitably lead to a reluctance to spend time on the piano.

While choosing an appropriate space, also consider the noise factor; not only from the piano, but also from your family’s day-to-day activities. Your children want to be close by, but not competing with noise from televisions, dishwashers and washing machines.

2. Make the space warm and welcoming. Your children will be encouraged to spend upwards of 30 minutes every day in this space. Is it a happy place to be for this amount of time? Small adjustments to lighting and heating can make a world of difference. Seek out places with natural light and ensure it is a cheerful and welcoming space that will encourage your child to visit the piano often for their own enjoyment.

3. Ensure your children have all required materials at hand. Help your children put together a small basket or bin of everything they may need for home practise. Pens, pencils, highlighters, and post-it notes will give your children a sense of organisation that will then spill over into their practise habits. Your children will also need adequate lighting to see their music, and a comfortable bench at the correct height to practise comfortably and correctly.

4. Make the practice nest a communal space.  Children of any age appreciate company while they practise. Having a chair, couch, beanbag chair or pillows nearby where family members will be inclined to sit, listen and enjoy the music immediately sets the tone for happy time on the piano. Encourage siblings to stop by and listen quietly, and allow yourself even just 10 minutes to sit and listen with undivided attention each time your children practise. A set-up that is conducive to including the family in home practise will encourage everyone involved to make piano practise an activity the entire family can be a part of.

5. Set the stage for organisation. Ensure your children’s practise space is uncluttered and organised. Clear out old sheet music and books from the piano bench, use a magazine organiser to hold current and favorite materials, and minimise knickknacks and other distractions from the top of the piano. If you can, avoid having the piano room do “double-duty” for laundry, toys and other clutter. Having the books your children need at their fingertips reliably ensures that no time is spent searching for lost or crumpled music. Get into the habit of placing the piano books in their appropriate space immediately after each piano lesson so they are ready and waiting.

Plus one more! Adding small surprises to your children’s practice nest (fresh flowers, a hand-written note of encouragement, a small treat, a new sticker pad, a special pen etc.) helps to show that you value the time they are spending on the piano and that you appreciate their efforts and dedication. Preserving the “specialness” of their practise space encourages positive feelings towards their home music time.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

How to Practise Away From the Piano – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

It’s that time again… How do the holidays seem to come around so quickly? We’re no sooner getting into the swing of the term and the term is over.

Spring is in the air and we are picturing sunny days spent running around outside, all cares and responsibilities momentarily suspended. It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it? But the reality is a little different. For those still learning in the early years/grades, for every week spent away from the piano, about two or three weeks’ work is undone. Have a break from practising in the holidays and you’ll find it harder to catch yourself back up on the other end.

So it goes without saying that I expect my students to maintain practise over the school holidays… although I also realise the reality is quite a different story.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWHowever, for those who are going to be away from their piano for a period of time, standard practising obviously isn’t possible. I have posted before about ways to practise away from the piano, but that was more about keeping your repertoire fresh in your mind.

Val has written a great post over at takelessons.com that will run you through a host of activities you can do to enhance and maintain your technique while you aren’t near your piano, or are pressed for time. She has even included great infographic summaries you can use. Check it out and discover the things you can do to help your body form habits that will help you when you are back at the piano.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

App Review “Music for Little Mozarts” by Alfred – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

Can you tell whether sounds are a low or high pitch?

Is the music going up or going down?

Does what you see match what you hear?

Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse are here to help you out!

‘Music for Little Mozarts’ is an app that was conceived for preschool and kindergarten-aged students, but if you don’t mind the cuteness, it is helpful for beginners of all ages. I mostly use it with students to help develop aural awareness, but it also contains some basic note recognition  and rhythm games.

This app corresponds with the the Music For Little Mozarts piano method books (published by Alfred), but the activities are still extremely useful even if you aren’t using those method books.

The following image shows the range of activities available in the app:

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSW

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWThe two I use most are the first two, as they are great early ear training activities asking only to tell the difference between two things. Is the note played a high note or a low note and are the notes going up or down? The interface is easy… just tap the red circle to hear the sound and then drag the same circle to either Beethoven Bear or Mozart Mouse, depending on your answer. For example, the image on the right shows the ‘Notes Going Up or Down’ activity. The student taps the red circle and hears a succession of notes. If they think the melody is moving from lower to higher notes, they drag the circle up to Mozart Mouse sitting at the top of the staircase. If the think the melody is moving downwards, they drag the circle to Beethoven Bear.

The app will not let the circle stay in the area of the wrong answer; it needs to be answered correctly before moving on to the next question.

Some of the activities don’t require the student to answer a question and act more as a teaching reinforcement. The child can play any note on the keyboard and the app will show them where it sits on the staff. After that, they can move on to the activity where they need to identify the keyboard location of a note after seeing it on the staff.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWThe app also has a simple rhythm exercise, using the note values that are commonly learnt in their first few lessons. Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse are each standing under a different rhythm. The student taps the red circle to hear a rhythm and then drags the note to the character standing under the rhythm they think is correct. Once again, the question needs to be answered correctly before moving on.

Aural training is such an integral part of a complete music education, so it’s great to find an app that approaches it in such a simple way for beginners. The first two activities are also great for discovering the aural capabilities of a new student… but they don’t even know you’re testing them.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.



Using Piano Pedals – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

When new students start with me, I always open up the piano and let them see the inside and how it works. Nearly without exception, the part that fascinates them the most is the mechanism for the pedals. They love to play with the pedals, as they can see and hear at the same time the differences depressing and releasing the pedals make.

The two or three pedals on your piano help make your playing dynamic and interesting, helping to provide tonal shading. However, there’s usually a fair bit to learn before the pedal can be introduced; you need to crawl before you can walk. By the time they get to use the pedal, students are usually pretty keen!

Correct use of the pedal involves placing your heel on the floor in front of the pedal so the ball of your foot rests comfortably on the pedal. Angling the ankle downwards should then depress the pedal, while bringing the ankle back up again (gently, or it will ‘clunk’) will release the pedal. Your heel should never leave the floor while pedalling as it is the pivot point. In the same way that playing the keys relies heavily on maintaining a loose, flexible wrist, playing the pedal relies on a flexible and comfortable ankle joint.

Composers use a few different ways to indicate when to depress the pedal, when to release it, and when to make a quick up-down pedal change. The picture below shows the different notations you will regularly see. A notch in the pedal line indicates a quick pedal change; lift your foot enough to allow the pedal to clear, and then quickly press the pedal down again.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSW

Each instrument has its own pedal personality and you will learn the idiosyncrasies of your own over time, just as with the rest of the piano.

The right pedal:

The pedal used most often is the right pedal, called the sustain or damper pedal. It has two main functions:

  1. Allows the sound to continue after the keys are released.
  2. Bringing a deeper, richer and more resonant quality to the timbre of the sound.

One thing that pianists tend to overlook is that during the Classical period (the generation of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or roughly from 1750 to 1820), the sustain pedal was a special effect. Therefore it should be used carefully when playing their music.

The left pedal:

The left pedal is called the una corda or soft pedal.

The main function of the soft pedal is to change the timbre of the sound, making it sound more distant. It can create a hushed atmosphere. Making the sound softer is of secondary importance – you should be able to play pianissimo (very softly) without it.

When the composer wants you to use the soft pedal, you see the indication una corda. Release it when you see the indication tre corda

Frank Hutchens’s ‘Two Little Birds’ requests at the beginning that both pedals (meaning right and left) are used simultaneously. The soft pedal gives the quiet atmosphere of the woodlands with the birds in the distance, while the sustain pedal provides the gentle, legato sound.

Piano Teacher in Wallsend NSWThe middle pedal:

This pedal has a different purpose depending on whether you are playing a grand piano or an upright.

  • On a traditional grand piano, the middle pedal is known as the sostenuto pedal. It acts as a damper for only the notes your fingers are playing as you depress the pedal. For example, if you  play a chord in the bass and then depress the sostenuto pedal, you can then play crisp, staccato notes in the treble but only the bass chord will remain sustained.
  • Older upright pianos didn’t normally have a third, middle pedal. For those uprights that do have three, the middle pedal is commonly known as the practice pedal. It mutes all the strings, allowing you to play as normal (including using the other two pedals) but softening the overall sound substantially. There is a notch to the left of the pedal so it can be locked in place. It is great for practising without disturbing your neighbours.

A good ‘pedalling instinct’ is based on knowledge, a very good hearing and mindful practice. This is why it is not used extensively with beginners. They need to develop an understanding of the music and how they play before introducing the pedal to enhance it.

The most important thing about pedalling is to not overuse it. It only takes a little overuse of the sustain pedal for everything to sound blurry. Always ask yourself how using the pedal is going to improve what you are playing.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.

What’s the Rush for Exams? – Piano Teacher in Wallsend, NSW

“How soon will she be able to sit her first exam?” is a question often posed by new or prospective student parents, often with a memory of their own days learning the piano.

When I was a kid, it was normal to start lessons at the start of the year after turning seven. We concentrated on one extracurricular activity (or only a couple) and we could practise every day. In the middle of the following year, we were usually ready to sit the Preliminary grade AMEB exam.

But these days the answer to the ‘when’ question is as uncertain as the length of the proverbial piece of string and there are a number of reasons why.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSW

  1. The AMEB Preliminary exam has been growing substantially and steadily more difficult. Pieces that appeared in my old First Grade books are now more likely to be found in the Preliminary repertoire. It was rare to venture beyond the basic five finger position and both key and time signatures were beginner level. In comparison, one of the pieces in the current Preliminary syllabus has interchanging compound and simple time signatures and two different pentatonic key signatures, as well as extending to both extremes of the keyboard.
  2. Kids these days have quite heavily-scheduled lives. They often have a list of extra-curricular activities that take up so much time, there is little time left for home practise. If they can’t practise effectively, they won’t improve at the rate that may be expected. Just turning up to lessons isn’t going to do the job. A student who can manage 90 minutes a week of quality practise will take double the time to progress as a student who can manage 3 hours (and this commitment to practise is pretty much out of the control of the piano teacher).
  3. Students are often starting lessons at a younger age. While I still prefer to not start them until around seven, many kids are starting as young as 4 and 5. This is a major factor in their exam-readiness. While there are many benefits to starting kids in music lessons earlier, without those language and maths basics behind them, it takes longer for them to learn concepts and many weeks of reinforcement activities are often required for each note or concept. Looking at the practise aspect, younger children’s attention spans are shorter and it can prove counterproductive to insist they sit at the piano for a specific amount of time. They also benefit greatly from having a parent sit with them and guide them through their practise, which becomes difficult when both parents need to work.
  4. Both parents working often means kids aren’t coming straight home after school. Afternoons spent at facilities such as OOSH offer no opportunity for scheduled practise time and the precious few hours left at home are rightly dedicated to family time.

Piano teacher in Wallsend NSWThe first point above makes the combination of issues somewhat specific to Australia, as the Australian Music Examination Board (AMEB) is the dominant player in providing instrumental assessments in Australia only, but the problem of less available practise time and younger beginners is lamented by teachers worldwide, whether in relation to exams or just general progress.

We can no longer expect piano students to follow the same progression as all the generations before them. Whereas once upon a time it was not uncommon for a beginner aged seven to spend eighteen months acquiring the basics and practising 20 – 30 minutes every day of the week to be ready to sit for their Preliminary examination (which were much easier), these days it is a rare student who is ready to be entered for this first examination within any less than two-and-a-half to three years of tuition.

If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.