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 ūüôā ) 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 ......"


This game involves at least two persons.

We take turns to say what we ate (or pretend to eat ūüôā ) 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 ‚ÄĒ All Rights Reserved

My Psychology Notes: Primacy and Recency effect of Memory

I have been interested in observing human being for long time. Incidentally I started my self-study of psychology in my gap year since last winter. Psychology is a subject about studying cognition, emotion and behavior of human being. Categories of psychology include developmental psychology, personality, psychopathology, social psychology and cognitive psychology. Psychology also covers animals in Comparative psychology and ethology.

Memory is one of the topics I am interested in. Generally I think I have good memory in daily life. I can recognize faces easily. I can recall details from the books and other stuffs I have read before. I also have good biographical memory. But ironically¬†I don’t have a good music memory. So I feel headache each time when I need to perform with memory.

Memory¬†is a key topic in¬†cognitive psychology. What I am impressed is the concept about¬†how the serial-position playing roles in¬†our¬†memory. The psychologists find that we tend to recall the first and last items in a series best, while the middle part worst. They name this tendency as “Serial Position Effect”. Furthermore, researches reveal that we recall last items of a series better just¬†after the presentation as these items are still in our short term memory (recency effect). On the other hand we need more rehearsal to memorize the beginning items in order to convert them into our long term memory (primacy effect).

These findings give inspirations on how we can assist  music memorization, especially when I train my students to prepare for the aural test. In the aural test students are asked to sing back a short musical phrase played by the examiner.  My advice is to sing the phrase as soon as possible. When we wait we may forget the phrase easily. My another advice is that as the phrase is being played only twice in the aural test, in the first playing we may capture the general flow of the phrase and pay attention to those near the end of the phrase . Then in the second playing we can focus more on the beginning part of the phrase.

Copyright ¬© 2015 Alice Ho ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ All Rights Reserved

Aural resources: tips about preparing part-singing in ABRSM aural tests 6A, 7A, 8A

Many of my students get stuck in preparing ABRSM aural tests of part-singing in grade 6-8. In the tests students are asked to sing back a single line from memory of a two-part or three-part musical phrase. They usually shorten the long notes, mix up all the ups and downs of lines and innovate a new line unconciously.

Successful part-singing (test) depends on:

1. input: sensitive ear that can discriminate the target line from polyphonic music
2. processing: good musical memory
3. output: good singing response, intonation
So find out which part students get stuck if they do not do part-singing well. For good musical memory, good singing response and intonation, well, it is not new in grade 6-8. But there is some case for those transfer students who do not received proper training previously. So don’t hesitate in switching back to aural exercises in lower grades if students get stuck in these aspects.

For discriminating target line from polyphonic music, yes, it is new here. Students feel chaotic easily so I ¬†use the “melodic change” exercise¬†first. This exercise¬†is borrowed from grade 1-3 “rhythmic/melodic change” aural tests. I show them the score of two-part phrases. ¬†I play the phrases at the piano. Then I change¬†a note in either upper or lower voice (I specify which voice they should pay attention to the change). Only after mastery of this exercise we start the part-singing exercise.

There are plenty of aural training for ABRSM exam. I prefer those two published by ABRSM ,  Aural training in practice and Specimen Aural Tests. I especially like the excerpts with singable range for both teenager boys and girls. Teenager boys are experiencing changing voice and it is hard to find suitable singing materials for them.

Not just for exam but it is still worthy to have part-singing training as it can further help us to develop musical ear for part-playing. Part-playing involves side tracking and shaping¬†different lines simultaneously in playing polyphonic music. Part-playing skill can also be used ¬†in those with hidden melody in accompaniment. So¬†please don’t just have part-singing training solely for exam!


Copyright ¬© 2014 Alice Ho ‚ÄĒ All Rights Reserved

Aural resources: harmony and cadence

The following notes are mainly written for my students preparing ABRSM grade 6-8 aural tests. It is ideal to attend music theory class to learn more about harmony but most of my students are too busy to do so. Therefor I simplify the harmony course here.

Learning harmony is also good in piano playing. When we play the piano, we mainly focus on the pitches and rhythm of the piece. However, it is harmony that greatly helps in building up the musical flow. This enhance deeper understanding of the piece and composers’ intention. We tends to overlook this musical element. It is even more pity that we usually conduct such kind of aural training ONLY for exam and in a rush.

Nature of chords

  1. Chords are stalks of notes. There are many types of chords. Triads and seventh chords are the most common types. In aural exam only triads and dominant 7th chords are covered.
  2. Triads are stalk of thirds. They can form root position, first inversion and second inversion with the change of notes in their bass.
  3. There are four types of triads according to the interval-nature between notes in the triads: major-, minor-, augmented- and diminished- triads.
  4. There are seven types of triads named according to their position in the scale: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading note. As the notes of these triads are picked up from the scale, triads from major and minor scales are in different interval-nature even they are in the same position of the scale. For example, tonic and subdominant triads in major key are major-triad in nature and become minor-triad in minor key. In major key, submediant triad is minor-triad in nature and turns to major-triad in minor key. Supertonic is major-triad and diminished-triad in major and minor keys respectively. Only dominant triad still keeps the same and is in major-triad all the time.
  5. Primary triads are tonic, subdominant and dominant triads.
  6. Dominant 7th (V7) is the combination of dominant triad and add a major 7th from the root.



Cadence marks the end of musical phrases.

Tonic– Dominant preparation– Dominant– Tonic

There are four types of cadence: perfect, imperfect, interrupted and plagal cadence. Firstly I will teach students to identify between perfect and imperfect cadence.  Imagine you are driving a car. You have to stop when you see the traffic light turns red. In music it is perfect cadence that functions as red traffic light and gives you sense of completion. The chord progression is V(7)-I. Imperfect cadence is then the yellow traffic light. You will feel the musical phrase is going on at imperfect cadence. Musical phrases end on V in every imperfect cadence.

Interrupted cadence gives you a sense of¬† surprise. ¬†It sounds like perfect cadence but ends on submediant chord, VI. Submediant and tonic chords share¬†one common note,¬†tonic¬†but these two chords are opposite in nature. When it’s in major key, I is major chord and vi is minor chord, and vice versa.

The following is the cadence chart that I use to teach grade 6-8 aural. Mediant, leading note chords and other chromatic chords are excluded here. Also submediant triad is seldom used so I omit it here and only keep it in interrupted cadence.

In grade 6, candidates only need to identify between perfect and imperfect cadence. Besides identifying the cadence, candidantes are further asked to name last two and three chords in the cadence in grade 7 and 8 respectively. Here my strategy is to think backward from the final chord. I list out the possible combination of chords in the following chart:


Major key Minor key
Perfect cadence I, ii, IV- V(7)-I i, ii‚ąė,iv – V(7)-i
Imperfect cadence ii, IV, V- I-V ii‚ąė,iv, V- i-V
I, IV, V- ii-V i, iv, V- ii‚ąė-V
I,ii, V- IV-V i, ii‚ąė, V- iv-V
Interrupted cadence (gr 7-8 only) I, ii, IV- V(7)-vi i, ii‚ąė,iv – V(7)-VI
Plagal cadence (gr 8 only) I, ii, V- IV-I i, ii‚ąė,iv – iv-i


Copyright ¬© 2014 Alice Ho ‚ÄĒ All Rights Reserved

Aural resources for exam: style and period

These are the aural resources for my dearest students in preparing ABRSM exam: Starting from grade 5 you all have to identify the musical period of a short piano piece played by the examiner during the aural exam. As you are not allowed to read the score, you have to catch up the salient features of the piece in order to make the guess. The followings are the typical examples of each musical period. Mostly are piano works. I also include some orchestral and instrumental works. Listen to them can give you a more comprehensive picture of each musical period. This in turn further helps your mastery of musical interpretation in your piano playing.

Baroque period (1600-1750)

#contrapuntal #sequence #terraced dynamics

J.S. Bach Invention no.1 ( violin and cello version)


Classical period (1750-1827)

#simplicity #regular 4-bar phrasing #Alberti Bass and other typical classical accomp figures


Mozart piano sonata in F, K332


Mozart Marriage of Figaro overture


Mozart Eine Kleine Nachmusik
Beethoven piano sonata in f minor, op 2 no 1


Romantic period (1827-1900)

#highly chromatic harmony #rubato #wide range of dynamics #dramatic #extreme

Schubert Der Erlkönig


Schumann Scenes from Childhood


Chopin Nocturne


Modern/Twentith century period (1900-)


Joplin Maple Leaf Rag #jumpy accomp


Gerswin 3 Preludes #off-beat accent #swing




#dissonant chords #rhythmic and impulsive

Bartok Piano sonata



#mist-like sonority#parallel octaves #other modes and scales

Debussy la cathedrale engloutie (piano roll)


orchestral transcription


Debussy Voils


Debussy La Mer



#similar to classical music but in unconventional harmonic progression

Shostakovich A child’s exercise book, op 69


Copyright ¬© 2014 Alice Ho ‚ÄĒ All Rights Reserved