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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ABRSM Speedshifter app for slow practice

Listening is crucial in piano learning. Through listening we  capture the mood and full picture of the music. But in some cases when I ask my piano students listening to the recording,  some complain they cannot follow every notes in the running passages. Moreover they tend to follow the “performance tempo” that pianists played in the recording. Obviously their technique are not capable to cope with that tempo at the early stage of learning so stumbles are often found.

I find Speedshifter, a IT tool from ABRSM is useful in this situation. Speedshifter officially is designed for instrumental students for practice. This tool can change the overall tempo of the recording from an audio file, make it faster or slower in different degrees, and play it out. In other words instrumental students can use this tool to alternate the tempi of piano accompaniment, usually slower the accompaniment at the beginning, and then speed up progressively to reach the “performance tempo”.

I use this tool in another way. I let my piano students listening to the original version of recording first. Then I use this tool to slower the tempo of recording some how similar to the “slow practice tempo”.

Speedshifer is free for download on PC and Mac. This tool is also available as mobile app for ios and andriod, and have both free and paid version for both OS.

You may find more information from the following ABRSM officially page

http://hk.abrsm.org/en/exam-support/practice-tools-and-applications/speedshifter/

Copyright © 2016 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Game for extending attention and memory span

This is an era of hyperactivity and impulsivity. Thanks the rise of smart phone, we like reading whatsapp messages and facebook, and even watching clips anytime and anywhere, such as crossing the road! And how about kids? Well, I find that they are more impulsive than us! I used to teach piano to early age students. But as I teach them over years, they gradually turn into teenagers. So I miss teaching early age students for certain years. Recently after the graduation of my old students, new generation of students starts. I start to teach several piano beginners. They are around 5-7 year old. They tend to get bored easily when doing some activities such as reading which are static and need higher degree of concentration. And the situation is worse than my old generation students.

Piano playing involve the integration of physical and mental coordination of our body. Some of my pre-grade students feel chaotic when they read two staves simultaneously.

Yesterday, during the piano lesson one of them teach me the following game:

The game starts with saying

"Yesterday I ate/drink ......"

Rules:

This game involves at least two persons.

We take turns to say what we ate (or pretend to eat 🙂 ) yesterday, but each one have to repeat what all other say before adding your part.

There is a tricking rule that we need to involve quantifiers for what you’ve eaten. And the quantifier must start from one and grows cumulatively. Furthermore quantifiers serve as memory cues in this game.

The game runs like this :

Me: Yesterday I ate one bowl of rice.

Student: Yesterday I ate one bowl of rice and drink two bowls of soup.

Me: Yesterday I ate one bowl of rice, drink two bowls of soup and three bars of chocolate.

 

My little student said the quantifier reaches 20 when they play this game at school. I tried two rounds of this funny game to this little student. There are lots of fun and laughs when we imaginatively include some strange stuff within the game. Then she played score with two staves more easily than before the game.

 

Of course this funny game is not for you to do confession on what you really ate yesterday. Instead , I hope this can serve as dessert during piano lesson and extend students’ attention and memory span poco a poco. Improved attention and memory span can in turn helps us memorizing music faster and more accurately. This game also can act as preparation to the melody and rhythm memorization in ABRSM aural tests (for example aural test 4A-8A, and rhythm recall test at the end of aural test in Grade 4-7) . And the game can even improve our sight reading indirectly.

Sight reading involves a process called “read ahead“. There is usually a time lag between we read the notes on the score and realize (play) the notes on the piano. The time lag depends on several factors such as how you are familiar with the piece, your musical understanding and playing technique, your familiarity with keyboard geography, and the difficulties of the piece you play. In order to compensate for the time lag we are trained to read a bit ahead while we play. So overall we play the piece continuously and on time while we are reading the score.

Extended attention and memory span somehow expand our cache capacity of the brain. So we can process more information simultaneously and more fluently. In turn, this facilitates “read ahead” process in sight reading.

Hope you enjoy the game!
Copyright © 2016 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Problem of holding breath in piano playing

breathing source: https://pixabay.com/zh/%E5%A5%B3%E5%AD%90-%E5%B9%B8%E7%A6%8F-%E6%97%A5%E5%87%BA-%E4%BE%A7%E5%BD%B1-%E8%BF%9E%E8%A1%A3%E8%A3%99-%E6%B5%B7%E6%BB%A9-%E8%87%AA%E7%94%B1-%E5%91%BC%E5%90%B8-%E6%AC%A2%E4%B9%90-570883/

Usually I get extremely tired after piano practice,  even though I just practise within a short period of time. Moreover, I face difficulty in memorizing piano pieces. I am good at memorizing many things such as  data, concepts, events and other daily stuff but except involving piano playing. I feel annoyed with my situation but so far I haven’t come across with people with similar case.

Traditionally piano pedagogists claim that fatique in piano playing is deal to improper posture and body movement during piano playing. And the pedagogists recommend the use of visual, aural, kinetic memory,  with the assistance  of thorough music analysis, to improve music memory. I’ve tried the above remedies but there is very little improvement for me.

In this year  I come across the sleeping disorder from my psychology self-study. Sleep apnea is a kind of sleeping disorder about stopping breath occasionally during the sleep.   The interruption of breathing during the sleep affect the sleeping quality greatly. So patients with sleep apnea feels very tired in daytime even they sleep quite a duration of time at night. I have heard some piano teachers about importance of breathing in piano playing but they often relate breathing to musical phrasing and expression. I start to think breathing in physiological way and wonder if my breathing during piano playing is related to my fatique.

Then I find two interesting webpages about breath holding. The first one says we may grow up with bad breathing habits and hold our breathing during daily life unconsciously.

http://www.breathing.com/articles/breath-holding.htm

 

I also get some hints from mindfulness meditation. The writer from the following link thinks breathing should be done unconsciously. He suggests we just focus on our nostrils to see if we hold the breath.

http://www.wildmind.org/mindfulness/one/breath-control

 

Afterwards I try to check my breathing while I play. I focus on my nostrils and find that I really hold my breath in some difficult passages such as quick passages of scale and arpeggios, and when I play in memory. I also find that I can play in memory better when I ensure I am breathing by focus on my nostrils.

These are just my tentative findings. Hope this can solve my problems. Please let me know if it works to you also.

Copyright © 2015 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Photo credit :

https://pixabay.com/zh/%E5%A5%B3%E5%AD%90-%E5%B9%B8%E7%A6%8F-%E6%97%A5%E5%87%BA-%E4%BE%A7%E5%BD%B1-%E8%BF%9E%E8%A1%A3%E8%A3%99-%E6%B5%B7%E6%BB%A9-%E8%87%AA%E7%94%B1-%E5%91%BC%E5%90%B8-%E6%AC%A2%E4%B9%90-570883/