Some thoughts on music notation

Last week in a piano lesson, I explained to one of my students that the direction of stem of music notes changes with their location in lines and space of music notation. She asked me why she should obey that rule. Aha, that’s a good question. When we learn the instrument, we must also learn how to read the score. We are asked to memorize pitch names, different type of note duration and other notation rules in 5-line staff music notation system. We just have to obey and memorize them hardly.

In these few years I come across with students with dyslexia. What we think simple tasks are actually difficult for them. Through teaching them piano I know more about the hidden design of music notation. For example, one of my student have spatial problem. She feels messy with right/left and up/down concepts. For example we read and play notes of the notation from left to right. And the pitches of piano gets higher also from left to right. When the notes go with piano the same direction, for example ascending scale, she can manage to play. But when the notes are presented not in the same direction as the piano, for example, a few ascending notes follows by descending notes,  she will get stuck. The situation even gets worse when both hands also need to play notes in different directions.

Hope this year I can spend more time to investigate more on this topic.

By the way, today is the first day of Chinese New Year. Wish you all stay healthy and happy in this rooster year 🙂 .

Copyright © 2017 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amy Beach: Scottish Legend, Op. 54, no. 1

Amy Beach: Scottish Legend, Op. 54, no. 1

When I learnt dotted rhythm around Grade 2 -3, I came across the dotted quaver. And most of the time the dotted quaver follows by a semiquaver and forms a rhythmic pattern like this:

dotted-quaver

I keep wondering why this pair of notes do not appear in retrograde, i.e. a semiquaver follows by a dotted quaver. Later I know that this pair of notes has a specific name: Scotch snap.

scotch-snap

From Wiki, Scotch snap is a prominent feature of a kind of dance tune Strathspey. You can watch Strathspey in the following clip:

 

It is interesting to find a piano piece from upcoming ABRSM grade 7 piano exam syllabus with a “Scottish” title while composed by an American female composer Amy Beach. From the program note in the score (This is published as album At the Piano with Women Composers by Alfred.) it states that Scotch snap and the lowered-seventh scale step (C-natural in measures 8, 16 and 36) show Scottish influences.

This piece is full of chordal passages, whatever in the beautiful, expressive outer sections and animated middle section. This may be challenging for small hands but luckily the composer marked some fingering and altogether with editor’s pedal marking can help overcoming the problem. I only have around one-octave hand span for my right and left hand and enjoy playing this piece very much.

I search  Spotify and find some recordings of this piece. I like the following recording. This is performed by pianist Joanne Polk. She has recorded the complete piano works of American composer Amy Beach (1867–1944) on the Arabesque Recordings label. The following recording is from her first recording in the Amy Beach series, by the still waters, which received the 1998 INDIE award for best solo recording.

 

 

I also find this grandious transcription as symphonic band in Spotify. I always like this kind of transcription of piano solo piece into other orchestration. This gives a fresh perspective in enjoying the same musical work.

Postlude: I highly recommend you to obtain the original score from album At the Piano with Women Composers by Alfred. I find the score of Scottish Legend is available freely in imslp but no fingering is included. And the pedal marking by the editor is more precise in Alfred edition.  Moreover the album includes beautifully tunes from less known female composers. I especially like the final piece in the album: Nocturne in Bb major by Maria Szymanowska. This gives me lots of inspiration in playing Chopin’s music.

Copyright © 2016 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

 

Game for teaching character and mood of music in piano playing

Music speaks our feeling and emotion. However it’s not an easy task to talk about feeling and emotion in piano learning. Some students are too shy to share their opinions, while some  may not be able to pick up appropriate words fully express their feelings. In recent months I am busy with preparing students for their piano exam and find an interesting way to teach this topic incidentally.

I have a student preparing for grade 5 piano exam in this autumn. He is introvert teenager and always keeps silence during the lessons. He has played the set pieces for so long period of time. But the performance is still not satisfactory. He  keeps playing the pieces rudely with wrong notes and with poor tone colour.  I realize that there is something wrong with my student. I keep asking him what’s happening but he just shakes his shoulder and doesn’t want to say.

Yesterday was his second last lesson before the exam but everything still kept the same. I know I should try another approach to deal with this situation. I sat at the piano bench and played the list A:1. I asked him what’s  the mood of this piece. He still said nothing. Then I brought out a dice ( yes, it’s a really useful tool in teaching 🙂 ) and told  him that there were number 1-6 in this dice. Let’s think about six different character and mood, and assign with different numbers correspondingly. The followings are the mood table created by me and my student:

1 Happy
2 Unhappy
3 Exciting
4 Boring
5 Gracefully
6 Calm

I asked my student to cast the dice. He got number 4. Then I asked him how to change the mood of piece into “boring”. He said by slowing down the tempo. As I was still sitting at the piano bench, I played the piece again with his instruction and kept asking what else can we do. He said playing the piece in lower register and changing the non-legato touching into legato.

Afterwards we changed the role: I cast the dice and he played the piece. I got number 1 and asked him to play the piece happily. This time thank God his playing was much much better!

This game helps us to explore and re-create the music with different character and moods. And the bonus of this game is precious. It lets me know more about my students. Up till that moment I finally know his definition of “boring” music–music in slow tempo. I also know a bit why he loses interest in piano learning–personally I like slow music and unconsciously I guess he likes it also. So maybe I gave him too much music that he dislikes. Another bonus is that the creation of mood table can reveal the mental state of student. I have a kid student. She seems burn-out in her piano learning. But she keeps silence and says nothing. When I ask her to suggest mood ( of course in Chinese), she keeps saying some adjectives with negative mood.

Hope you and your students also enjoy the game!

 

Copyright © 2016 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Touchweight, speed of depressing piano and dynamics

Do you find that some pianos seem easier to play and use less force to depress the keys? I find a article discuss about this phenomenon. The writer says it is all about touchweight and piano action.   He gives a very detailed explanation about this topic. Please have a look:

http://www.pianofinders.com/educational/touchweight.htm

And this is further study of touchweight. We usually have the myth that we use different degree of force on pressing the piano keys to give dynamic change. However, from Thomas Mak’s Alexander Technique book What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, he says  “The very important thing that the pianist needs to know is that it is not the pressure applied to the keys that determines the volume of the sound, but the speed with which they are depressed. This may be surprising to some pianists, but it is the truth.”

This idea is odd and abstract. So at first I would ask my students just use their hands knocking  at the piano cover or any wooden surface. Knock slowly and accelerate the speed gradually. Let them listen to the change of volume of knocking sound with the change of knocking speed. Only after they can manage it we move to piano playing. This time we play only on one piano key, also starting from very slow finger action and accelerate.

 

Reference

Mark, Thomas C, Roberta Gary, Thom Miles, and Barbara Conable. What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body: A Manual for Players of Keyboard Instruments : Piano, Organ, Digital Keyboard, Harpsichord, Clavichord. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2003.

 

Copyright © 2016 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

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