Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Composing with Flour and Salt

Would you rather eat a spoonful of flour or a spoonful of cake?  The answer is obvious, and yet the cake wouldn't be the same without the flour.  Keyboard skills (scales, arpeggios, chords, etc.) are somewhat like flour in piano study and although some students find them quite unpalatable or boring, when you mix several of the building blocks together, you end up with some fun and appealing results. 
Our studio piano quest theme for July is  "Be Creative" so we will be focusing on tips and tricks for composing and improvising using the patterns of scales, chords, arpeggios, chord progressions and rhythms as our ingredients.  Following are a few fun samples illustrating the use of keyboard skill patterns in a variety of songs.

EXPANDING INTERVALS - "The Snowflake" Technique from Ear Training and Improv.com demonstrates how to use intervals to create a cascading sound.

About 15 seconds into this video, you can hear the Piano Guys using this impressive sounding pattern.

By using the same basic PATTERN OF BLOCKED CHORDS as the accompaniment (I - V - vi - IV) and varying the melody line the possibilities are endless as demonstrated by BYU Vocal Point.
The Four Chord Song

Pattern Play Listening Room  has a variety of composition samples using the pattern suggestions in the series of  Pattern Play composition and improv books.
My Favorite Theme in Pattern Play 1 is Africa.  I love the rousing rhythms and REPEATING BASS PATTERNS.   World Piece is an amazing sample of what you can create by simply using the notes of the PENTATONIC SCALE (all black keys).  I love how even with a fairly simple repeating bass pattern, the melody line draws you into this reflective song.  Even a beginning student can play melodies on the black keys as seen in Piano Safari's Charlie Chipmunk song.  By adding one white key to the black set and some syncopated  JAZZY RHYTHMS, an entirely new piece Blues on Black is created.  In contrast an ALBERTI BASS BROKEN CHORD PATTERN in "For Nannerl" in Pattern Play 3 creates calming delicate classical style piece. And although it may take some time to achieve this level of proficiency in composing, the framework samples in the book can guide you step by step to expand your creative possibilities.  Piano Safari's Rainbow Colors illustrates the use of a series of ARPEGGIOS with a few omitted notes and added steps to create a sound picture to match the title.

Once you have a knowledge of a few basic "ingredients" (chords, scales, rhythms, etc.), the instructions vary on how to create a pleasing composition, but following is one way to begin.
1.  Pick a theme for your song  (princess party, skydiving, football, haunted house, etc.).
  •  Use pictures as a springboard for ideas or combine several pictures to make your piece tell a story (see Colorinmypiano Improvisation and Composition inspiration cards).
  • Think of how the objects or characters in your piece would sound.  A fun group activity to practice this skill in a group setting is  Mystery Bag Improv (Pianimation.com).
  • or Use words to a familiar song but change the melody (PianimationCamp Grenada Composer's Challenge)
2.  Choose a scale(s) that matches the mood(s) of your song.
  • Happy, Traditional - Major (used in the majority of popular songs)
  • Jazzy - Blues Scale
  • Oriental - Pentatonic Scale
  • Spooky, Sad or Melancholy - Minor Scale
3.  Create your melody.
  • Many songs start and/or end on the 1st note of the scale (tonic)
  • Do you want a march like feel (4/4 Time) or a waltz (3/4)?
  • Remember balanced repetition makes a melody pleasing and memorable
    • Do you like repeating rhythms? cascading arpeggios? a chord based foundation? question and answer phrases? ABA form? sound effects? theme and variation?
  • Select 1 or 2 rhythm patterns that repeat several times in your song.  Composing words to a  rhythmic poem or children's story (like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom) can be a great starting point if you are timid about starting from scratch.
  • Be sure to add dynamics (piano, forte, etc.) and articulation (stacccato, legato, accents, etc.) to fit the mood you want your song to create.
  • For a more in-depth explanation of what makes a good melody see composecreate.com
    A Good Melody: Rhythm  (balance of variety and repetition)
    A Good Melody: Motives (repetition, sequence, inversion, retrograde, augmentation, etc.)
    A Good Melody: Contour
4.  Add some chord patterns that match your melody.
  • Primary Chords (I, IV & V) are used most often
  • Pick a pattern to fit your melody (broken, blocked, march, open 5ths, 1 8va arpeggios, etc.)
5.  Record, Revise and Create until you are happy with your finished piece.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Teaching Piano Technique Motions Creatively: Caterpillar Crawl

I'm fortunate to have a houseful of children that I can try out my new piano teaching ideas on.  Although that can pose a challenge at times when I'm trying to provide motivation for 5 kids to  practice regularly or keep a quiet professional lesson environment, I love "playing" piano games with my children. I created this musical movement activity to practice wrist movements with my preschooler.
I started by telling a silly story about a caterpillar doing his workout activities at the gym to introduce her to flexible wrist motions necessary for piano playing.  We listened to Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca and simultaneously discovered some elements of the form of the music as each section repeats.
I came up with these lyrics to sing and made a musical map of pictures as a reminder of the motions for each melodic theme.

Caterpillar at the Gym
(Pedaling a Bicycle - wrist circles towards body)
Caterpillar crawl, caterpillar crawl
Pedal round but do not fall.

(Jumprope  - bouncing staccato)
You can jump around and have some fun
just like a bouncing ball.

(Swim - wrist float off)
Float up gently, glide back down
Float up gently, glide back down
(swing a racquet - feel the beat)
Swing Swing....

I think it is helpful to demonstrate the motions slowly away from the piano as students imitate using this super slow version first.
Super Slow
Once they become familiar with the basic motions, we try it at full tempo and they can match the motions as they hear the motives repeat.  Because the song is quite lengthy I just do the first portion.  In just a few minutes, they get to practice motions in a playful rhythmic way away from the piano that will later pave the way for playing arpeggios (wrist circles) staccatos and phrase endings or large leap gestures (float off) without the awkward tension and stiff wrists that some beginners exhibit.
At Tempo

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Finger Trampoline

I recently was inspired by a post  by Andrea and Trevor Dow on "Teach Piano Today" about making this simple "amazing fingercise cup" to help improve finger strength.  I promptly constructed one with the tools I had on hand, and my curious kids were anxious to get there hands on this new "toy."  They love the sound and were intrigued by the different pitch of the sounds of varying sized cups. My mind started spinning with additional uses. At our last group lesson we changed "Don't Clap This One Back" to "Don't Pluck this one Back."

Don't "pluck this one back
My first attempt several years ago with a young beginner trying "Cookie Dough" (a finger # practice song from My First Piano Adventures) began with an awkward finger depressed into a ziplocked ball of cookie dough.  It looked much like the "wrong" picture below, full of finger tension and flying fingers. The fingercise cup made me think of the analogy of fingers dipping gently tip first into a trampoline while the other fingers line up beside as spectators.  After my daughter used this to teach one of her new students this week, her student actually chose the "finger trampoline" over candy as her end of the lesson prize!  It was the perfect tool to introduce the technique and practice finger patterns for her assignment to learn "Firming up my Fingers."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bass Clef Pop and Drop

Bass Clef Pop and Drop - heidispianonotes.blogspot.com
At our recent piano group lesson we had a some new beginners join the studio, so I tried out a variation of this balloon popping game inspired by pinterest to review the concepts we had learned or reviewed in previous games that day. I am fortunate to have my teenage daughter joining the ranks with me as my piano teaching assistant.  We were able to divide into groups so she could run the beginner level games while I did activities with the students who are ready for more challenging concepts. 

·         I inserted a piece of candy inside each balloon before blowing them up and then taped them to the wall in the shape of a bass clef.  Students took turns popping balloons on the Bass Clef by finding the symbol written on the balloon that answers the clue.  Darts might be more fun, but somehow the image of hurling darts in my home full of energetic children seemed a little disconcerting  and I'm not much of a risk taker, so opted for a safe toothpick!
o   “___s” the first letter of the music alphabet
o   “____s” the last letter of the music alphabet
o   It has a head and a stem and its all colored in.
o   It has a head and a stem but its not colored in.
o   Don’t fall in the the ______note
o   F F F Forte
o   P  p  p  piano
o   Fingers in ears (line note)
o   Hand above and under head (space note)  

I had plans to make a treble clef with more advanced signs, but discovered that I had a balloon shortage because some of my children decided to make water balloon babies after the birthday party the day before  :(   so maybe we can do a little "Treble Trouble" version next month.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Teaching Rhythm in the Bed Bug Rhythm Hotel

 Right now my 4 year old daughter's favorite piano game is Trick or Treat, a fun rhythm activity which I found on Layton Music website several years ago.   She wants to play it every day she practices.  I'm sure a lot of that has to do with the fruit snacks or goldfish treats that she gets to eat when she picks a treat card:)  I love how the repetition has helped her to even understand the concept of eighth notes at such a young age.
To introduce the concept of counting by measure I had her construct rhythms bugs, slugs and snakes on our rhythm heart beat board.  The fabulous idea from Jen Fink of using silly putty to teach rhythm has been a fun and effective addition to my studio activities.  Now that I'm teaching my first Let's Play Music graduates, I thought a bed bug board would be especially effective with them as they learn rhythms with "bugs and slugs"  so I made this bed bug rhythm board. Each colored room  in the "Bed Bug Hotel" represents a measure and each bed= 1 beat.

Imagine the bug family comes to the hotel for a family reunion.
1.  Can you count the number of "heads" that are in each room (measure)?  Are there enough beds for everyone?  If not, some bugs (the eighth notes) will have to share a bed.  If there are no rests in the measure, all the beds must be filled.  The half and whole note "bugs" need a little more room to stretch out across several beds.  Or maybe grandpa (whole note) just needs a whole room to himself because he snores!
2.  Add eyes to your bug's head.  I use a the tip of a pencil and it serves as a great visual/tactile reminder of when the sounds of each note begins.
3.  Add numbers (counts) below each bed.  The numbers land on the pillows, whereas the + or e & a's are in the middle of the bed when the bed has been "subdivided" to share with several smaller bugs.
4.  Glow in the dark silly putty is a fun surprise if you have a dark space to go to accentuate the repeating rhythm patterns of a song dictated on the beat board.

 I also made a 3/4 Time Signature Board.  I prefer to just slip the printable into sheet protector so that students can use a dry erase marker to add the counts below rhythms they have dictated.
I like to introduce new rhythms with the beat board at private lessons, but it also serves as a fun game component at our group lessons when students compete to dictate their rhythm bug rooms quickly and correctly.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Summer Piano Quest Candy Jar Challenge

To kick off summer piano lessons, I am having a summer candy jar challenge in my studio.  As students master skills and pieces they earn the opportunity to enter guesses for the candy jar of their choice filled with different candies.  In addition, everyone who completes the game within a month gets to pick a prize from the prize box.  The skills to advance one square on the game board for each piano challenge they complete are listed below.  Students choose a small sticker and write their accomplishments in the blanks as they work their way through the musical periods.  I chose to keep the tasks quite general so they are adaptable for my preschooler up to my teenage students.
·         Master 1 page repertoire (Notes, Expression, Rhythm, Fingering)
·         Complete Notes in the Fast Lane in 1 minute or less
·         100% Terms & Signs Quiz
·         Clap & Count Rhythm Challenge Sheet Accurately
·         Pass off keyboard skills in a new key
·         Master a Music Ace game during piano lab
·         Sightread 20 consecutive measures without errors