Piano safari: remedy for sight reading difficulties

Happy Chinese New Year! In Chinese society we use an animal to represent each year. This year is the year of dog. And I take this opportunity to introduce you a piano method system that also use animals as concepts: piano safari.
Piano safari is an innovative and progressive piano method system. It consists of 3 levels covering from total beginner to around abrsm grade 3. I am impressed by their emphasis of the importance of “sound before symbol” pedagogy concept. This is reflected by the extensive use of pattern pieces since lesson one. Pattern pieces are those music with lots of repeated patterns and are learnt by rote. They are challenging yet much more musically mature. My students like them very much because pieces in low grades especial in pre-grade are too childish and dull. Pattern pieces help students to be focus on music itself, develop keyboard geography sense, hearing sense, musical sense, memory skill, and as a result sight reading skill indirectly and surprisingly.

Piano safari also includes pre-staff notation like other popular piano methods such as Alfred piano methods. It introduces black-keys only and white-keys only pieces progressively. And for 5-line staff reading, they use intervallic reading approach around treble G and bass F notes. Specific note identification is left in level 2. Moreover sight reading cards sets are available for each level.

Another impressing feature of piano safari is that they use animals to symbolize piano techniques, named animal techniques. I also use pattern pieces to cope with technical difficulties such as hand shape and hands together issue.  It is a big topic so let me discuss it in due course.

I start using piano safari since last summer. At first I heard this system in Facebook piano pedagogy discussion groups. Later I attended a piano pedagogy seminar last summer. The speaker just asked us if we had heard this method. I teach in Hong Kong but it is pity that so far this method is not available here. So I order books on their official webpage directly.

Piano safari method system is somehow unconventional when it compares with mainstream score reading-centered approach. I feel satisfied with this innovative method system. I teach in music centre and need to come across with transfer students frequently. Some are indeed sight reading dyslexia but most of them simply because they are used to play by ear. In low grade as the music is simple this kind of piano learning is fine. However, I find students under this kind of piano learning usually have very chaotic and weird sight reading mindset. So gradually they will struggle with learning new pieces from the score when the pieces get more complex. And some even do not care if they have played correct notes from the score. By this way students lose their patience and interest in piano playing very easily. I use this method system mainly as remedy for transfer students with sight reading difficulties so as to reset a more systematic sight reading mindset and hope they can regain their music interest.

Demonstration videos, teaching guides and more information can be found on piano safari official webpage https://pianosafari.com/

Copyright © 2018 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:


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.


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


Flemish-style virginals of the 17th century

In this clip the ‘Pavan Lord Salisbury’ by Orlando Gibbons, from the collection “Parthenia” (1613) is performed by historical keyboard instrument Virginal.

It is always great to enjoy the antique music with antique historical instrument. Virginal is a kind of keyboard instrument in Renaissance period. Altogether with harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano, they are the ancestor of modern piano. Their appearance, material used and sounding mechanism change a lot. Furthermore, change of the keyboard music writing style also reflects evolution of piano.

Copyright © 2015 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

J. S. Bach: Sinfonia No. 11 in G minor, BWV 797

Another rearrangement of Sinfonia into wind trio by music notation software. This time technology plays a crucial role as the range of middle voice is very wide. It is the sound module in the software that makes this rearrangement come true.

Hope you enjoy it!

Copyright © 2015 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

J.S. Bach: Sinfonia no. 15 in b minor, BWV 801

sinfonia XV

Manuscript of Sinfonia no 15

Polyphonic music playing is a very important skill in piano learning. This skill helps us to be used to split our attention to perform more than one melodic line simultaneously. But most of my students dislike them. They think polyphonic music is too complicated and chaotic.

Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias are the essential piano literature in mastering polyphonic piano music. It is widely used as teaching repertoire for intermediate level piano students. As Inventions are written in two parts only so I often teach some of them first.

Afterwards it comes more challenging Sinfonias. All of them are written in three-part. For me Sinfonia, no.15 in b minor is the simplest and easiest in Sinfonias. The distinguished repeated-notes subject and stepwise countersubject keep switching among three lines, with demisemiquaver arpeggios as episode. This makes us easier to “chase” and memorize the lines. More importantly, the piece mostly appears as in two-part texture. When it is in three-part texture, there always be one or two parts in long notes. This piece is so simple that I like to use it as an introduction to three-part piano work to my piano students.

The following soundcloud recording is the rearrangement of Sinfonia no. 15.

Thanks for the technology available.  I type this Sinfonia by music notation software and use its internal sound module to turn three parts into three different winds instruments as wind trio. So these three parts are played in three distinguished timbre.

I also made a slow version for practice and aural training.


Hope you enjoy it!

Copyright © 2015 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Debussy: Danse bohémienne

Our impression of French composer Debussy (1862-1918) is that he is an impressionist composer. But this is not the full picture of him. He has also composed some musical works in neo-classical style including Danse bohémienne.

Danse bohémienne was composed in 1880 when Debussy lived in Russia. Comment of this piece by his contemporary composers was not good. Nadezhda von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky and employer of Debussy (he taught von Meck’s children music when he lived in Russia in 1880-1882) sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne to Tchaikovsky in September 1880. A month later he wrote back to her, “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity”.

From the reviews of Naxos CD Debussy: Piano works Vol 1, Danse bohémienne is “a piece that lives up to its title in rhythmic energy, inevitably suggesting Chopin’s use of native Polish dance.”

When we talk about Polish dance, we usually think about Mazurka and Polanaise. But they are all in triple meter while here Danse bohémienne is in duple time. So I search the google and find that there are only two types of Polish danse in duple meter: Krakowiak and Polka.

The Krakowiak is a fast, syncopated Polish dance in duple time from the region of Kraków and Little Poland. This dance is known to imitate horses, the steps mimic their movement, for horses were well loved in the Krakow region of Poland for their civilian as well as military use.

Polish composer Frédéric Chopin had composed a bravura concert krakowiak in his Grand Rondeau de Concert Rondo à la Krakowiak in F major for piano and orchestra (Op. 14, 1828).

A lively dance in duple meter, originating in Bohemia and performed by couples.

I am still wondering whether this piece is Krakowiak or Polka. It is interesting to find traits of both types of dance in this piece. For example the semiquaver passage at the end of middle section of Danse bohémienne is very similar to the figurations in Chopin’s Grand Rondeau de Concert Rondo à la Krakowiak (luckily both scores are available in imslp for free download).

Anderson, Keith. Debussy: Piano works Vol 1. Naxos 8.553290, 1995. CD.

Magrath, Jane. Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature . Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co, 1995.

Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.New. York: Schirmer Books, 1991

Trochimczyk, Maja. “KRAKOWIAK (CRACOVIENNE)” Polish Dances. Polish Music Center, (Flora L. Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California), Aug 2000. Web. 15 Nov 2014. http://www.usc.edu/dept/polish_music/dance/krakowiak.html

Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Mendelssohn: Gondellied (Allegretto non troppo, U 136)

Gondola is a small flat-bottomed rowing boat  in Venice, Italy. We are more familiar with another related musical genre, barcarolle in music history. Bacarolle originally means folk songs sung by gondolier (boatman of gondola). Some romantic period composers such as Chopin, Faure and Tschaikovsky have composed bacarolle for solo piano.  “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour”, from opera The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach is the famous barcarolle. I think it should be  the first barcarolle we piano player learnt because you can easily find the simplified solo piano versions of this song from John Thompson and other piano method books.

Mendelssohn uses Gondellied as title here but we can guess the piece is in barcarolle style. Moreover, Henle publishes this piece with three Venetian Gondola Song from Songs without words , albums of piano miniatures by Mendelssohn.

Back to this piece, it is written in compound duple time and in comfortably tempo, which is common feature in barcarolle.  Just like many vocal works  it has 7-measure introduction, then lyrical melody joins in. I especially like the introduction. Here right hand figure (E-C#-C#-E-E) in the opening is borrowed from the opening of melody in m. 8 (E-C#-C’#-C’#). This figure further elaborates in accompaniment throughout the piece. It reminds me the gentle water flow.

Mendelssohn’s  Gondellied is ABRSM grade 7 group B piece. It is also good to teach students singing tone, voicing (this piece consists quite a lot of double notes and chords in melody) and balance between hands through this piece.


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved