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







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 🙂 ) 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

My Psychology Notes: Motivation

We all know that practice makes perfect. We have to spend lots of time and effort in piano practice in order to master piano playing. However practicing usually involves repetition. Repetition brings bore easily. So in reality we don’t like practicing.  We don’t like bore so we don’t like practice also. In psychology, there are several approaches to motivate people. They are as follows:

Rewards as Reinforcement

We teachers like to give students verbal appraisal, stickers and candies to show our appreciation of students hardworking and achievement. Actually this approach has a specific technical name, operant conditioning. The rationale of this approach is that reinforcement (rewards and punishments) can help to shape students’ behaviour (e.g. become more willing to practice).

Locus of Control

Young students like stickers and candies. But when they grow up, these kind of rewards are usually no longer attractive. So we have to find another way to motivate them.

Julian Bernard Rotter thought that besides the reinforcement, the locus of control also plays role when people want to do a certain behaviour.  Locus of control means how people feel they can control a situation affecting them. If people think they can have higher degree of control, they will engage more and are likely to do certain behaviour (Behavioral Potential). So it is a good idea to let students to be initial in the piano learning process. For example let them to choose the piano repertoire ( of course from a pool of piano repertoire with appropriate level) and design their own practice schedule.

Maslow’s triangle

Maslow’s triangle shows the hierarchy of needs. The toppest level of needs is about self-actualization. But here I am concerning the bottom parts–basic needs. Needs for food, drink and security are also important as they are the foundation of our life. So concern students’ overall physical and mental state as well. If they do not feel well, let them have a rest.

Habits, Addiction and Brain System

When we talk about “habits” and “addiction”, we may think these two terms representing two entirely different concept. For “addiction” we may associate something not so good, such as addicted to alcohol, cigarette, shopaholic, gambling or playing online games. But these two terms are all originated from our brain system. In The Power of Habit, Reporter Charles Duhigg  reveal that based on neuroscience and psychology, habit is formed under the following pathway: cue–>routine–>reward. For example when we feel stressed (cue), we may drink alcohol, take a cigarette or go shopping (action). Afterwards we feel released (reward). When we repeat this pathway and gradually this pathway will become our habit.

We may adjust this pathway to so as to encourage students to practise more. For example when they begin to feel bored during practice (cue), normally they will stop practising and do other things (action). Then they feel happy again (reward). This time when students get bored again in practice session, we teachers can provide some funny ways in practicing. For example we may record melodic line of music first. Then playback this recording while playing accompaniment on the piano.

Copyright © 2015 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

memorization in piano playing

It is painful for me to play the piano in memory. I have neither absolute pitch to assist music memorization. While it is a custom to perform in memory, I have to spend much time to memorize the score. But still my memory is not always reliable and long lasting.

Books about music memory usually cover four methods: muscular, visual, aural memory and by analysis. I modify some of them to fit my ability. The followings are my tips on memorization in piano playing:

1. muscular memory
It is the fastest way to get memory of “playing”, only if you use consistent and efficient fingering with appropriate posture and body movement. But when I get nervious, I lose this type of memory easily. So it is not so reliable.

2. visual memory
It is something like scanning scores into your brain. But I find difficulty in memorizing notes purely as visual symbols (notations). I think visual memory is rather as an end product of your musical understanding and patient practice of the piece.

Memory of keyboard geography is also a kind of visual memory. This type of memory with the sense of relative pitch can help you locating notes on keyboard quickly even if you don’t have absolute pitch.

3. aural memory
It is not difficult to memorize music as sound. But I can’t find the way to realize sound in my brain into piano playing. Later I find that I lack the skill “play by ear”. The skill “play by ear” means learning piano pieces through imitation from sound, not from any forms of written notation . It is instinct for very young kids. But our piano curriculum ignore this skill and praise the development of notation reading instead.


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

online music dictionary

Not only musical notes but also performance directions help us to understand more about the musical works and composers intention. Performance directions are musical terms and symbols about dynamics, tempo and mood. Musical terms are mostly written in Italian, with some German and French.

When I was young I am too lazy to memorize these musical terms. My teacher was too kind to  translate and explain them to me. Nowadays, I find that some good online music dictionaries are available.

Dolmetsch Online gives a very comprehensive glossory of musical terms and symbols.

Do you want to find out the pronunciation of a specific musical term? You can search and listen to it in Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary .

Classical music Recording Label Naxos publishes a webpage about muscial glossary. It also includes information of instruments and genres.


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved

Your piano learning: Practice makes perfect!

How often you should practise the piano?
How long you should practise each time?
How you practise each time?

Practice makes perfect. But there is no fixed answers to the above questions. It depends on individual situations and needs. I know Hong Kong students are very busy and don’t have time for daily practice. But from my experience regularity gives a better progression. Just like eating, it’s crazy to eat a total amount of a week’s diet within one meal. I suggest practising piano in regular bass,  at least 4 days per week. Moreover practice immediately after the piano lesson can greatly deepen what you have learnt. 

It is also hard to define the length of practice session. It mainly depends on the amount you learnt during the lesson. The more you learnt the longer should be the practice session. For beginners, duration of practice session is approximately the same as in piano lessons.  

Same as piano lessons, duration of practice session also highly depends on attention span. It will ruin your practice if you are too tired in a lengthy practice session.  It is good to split a lengthy practice session into several shorter sessions. Furthermore, some kids lose concentration easily. They tend to wander around during practice sessions. So I ask them to play phrases of the pieces four times correctly and consecutively instead.

Setting goals and procedures for each practice session can make your practice more efficient. I usually begin with some warm-ups. I play something from Hanon, some scales and arpeggios. Then I practise piano studies. Afterwards I move to my pieces. Don’t just play pieces from the beginning to the end. You will leave many details in between. Divide pieces into manageable and meaningful fragments, such as phrases or even a few measures. Polish each fragment with patience. Then link fragments together to give a bigger picture of pieces.


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho— All Rights Reserved

Your piano learning: something about piano lessons

After determined to start piano learning, you may come across the following questions:

How often should I have piano lessons?
How long should each lesson last for?
What does a piano lesson consist of ?

In Hong Kong we usually attend piano lessons once a week. For those busy adult learners in advanced level like me, we have lessons every two weeks.

Duration of lessons depend mostly on the attention span. For beginners I recommend 30-minute lesson. Then the lessons can be extended to 45 minutes or one hour gradually.

Piano playing is an integrated arts subject. During the piano lessons we learn piano playing technique and develop musical understanding. That means we don’t just learn piano playing in the class. Instead we also do some sort of activities such as listening, singing and improvising. We also cover music theory and history, and other media of arts such as paintings and poems.

This kind of learning is called simultaneous learning. Piano pieces are the core of lesson, supported by different kinds of activities and subjects. These all give us a better understanding to the pieces we play and give holistic musical development.


Copyright © 2014 Alice Ho — All Rights Reserved