You can now see our first steps into compositon as a quick video!
Sound track - coming soon as a solo piano piece too!
Find the video: HERE
You can now see our first steps into compositon as a quick video!
Sound track - coming soon as a solo piano piece too!
Find the video: HERE
First Steps into Composition
One of the main problems with composition is this pre-set idea that in order to compose you must be an advance musician or some sort of super creative type. Or that in order to write music you need a muse and be inspired by something … well inspiring.
But composition and teaching composition doesn’t need to start complicated, and indeed it can be included in lessons from a very early stage.
Composing is just slow improvisation – and students of all ages and ability levels usually enjoy making music up.
Where to Start
Creative composition can be quite a freeing exercise. Use a great picture of a story idea and just encourage students to make sounds and noises to represent what that picture means to them.
So for example if you have a picture of a stormy landscape:
Students might start with slow rain dripping noises, then build it up louder and faster to represent the rain. Then loud and crashing for thunder, with lightning flashes… for it to all quieten down and go back to the gentle rain drops again.
Writing it Down
You might remember he Begin with the Blues post I made and teaching composition can start in a very similar place.
Language is all around us and is something that students can relate to. So by using language as a basis for rhythms it makes writing melodies a lot more accessible.
Starting with a title is perfect as your students know what they’re describing.
Encourage students to start by writing a question down (this gets them to already write in even phrases) and then to write down the rhythm that goes with that small sentence. By saying the words out loud and clapping they will also be recognising the relationship between crotchet and quavers. (It’s quite helpful if you try and ensure that their sentence contains some easy words otherwise you’ll have some difficult rhythms to write down!)
It might be something as simple as:
What will you have for your tea today?
Once they have the rhythm for the first question, then all they need to do then is write an answer to that question. This also then gets their melody writing to not only be focused on working in phrases, but it starts them thinking how melodies work together and should also ensure that they end up the same length. I like to think about melodies about being organic, so the melody rows from the first phrase.
So you might end up with:
What will you have for your tea today? I’m having sausage and chips
When they have a sentence and the rhythms written down then it’s just giving them a series of notes to experiment.
As with teaching improvisation it’s often easier to start with fewer notes so they can write something that to them ‘makes sense’ rather than having too many notes to choose from.
Pentatonic scales are a brilliant resource for this – but any sequence of notes you fancy would work.
Encouraging students to start on the first note of the scale or sequence and ending on the same note at the end of the song also helps students find a melody that they find satisfactory.
Begin with the Blues
For some teachers and students jazz and improvisation isn’t something that appears in lessons or even on their radar. I do wonder whether part of it is that classical music is viewed as more serious so more educational, and good for you… like cabbage. But popular and jazz music can be as challenging (and rewarding) if not more so.
There’s been plenty of occasions where students have assured me that they ‘don’t like jazz’, but actually when they’ve tried swing pieces and started on the road to improvisation they really enjoy it.
But where to start.
If you’re a teacher who’s never taught improvisation before – have no fear – it’s easier than you think. Here’s my top tips on starting students on the improvisation pathway.
The first thing to remember: improvisation is fast composition. It’s just making up a piece on the spot. So like composition – it all breaks down to practice and trying different things.
Choosing the Notes:
Students will always respond better if they’re given something small and manageable first. The focus should always be more rhythm and less notes. Here’s my go to note selections.
1. Piano Pentatonic Fun
With my younger piano students I do like to start with a pentatonic scale. Pentatonics are great as you can play them in any order and it doesn’t affect the sound. But before you worry about which notes to skip in order to give you a true pentatonic sound, stop. The black keys – ta da! One easy to see and play pentatonic scale.
My go to for improvising in this key is to play lots of swooping F# and C# accompaniment figures underneath and just let them play. If you keep it smooth and syrupy often students will be happy just seeing how all of their notes work well and fit.
Encourage them to try more than one note at once too!!
You can download my piece Five Star (including a backing track) for FREE in the freebie section
2. The Blues (one for all!)
I must admit my next go to (especially for the last lesson of the school year and when the students just need a break and something different) is a blues scale.
Blues scales are amazing – but of a pain fingers wise for piano students – as again they’re just like pentatonics (in fact they are just an extension really) in that they sounds great no matter what order you play the notes. They’re also great as they just sound ‘jazzy’ and you can get some great sounds from them.
Again – just like the pentatonics for piano students encourage students to try more than one note at once.
The most common mistake with blues scales is students playing notes that they ‘shouldn’t’ - but if it enhances the improvisation I wouldn’t worry about it. But maybe recommend focusing on three or four notes first before moving onto more.
How to Improvise
1. Start small
Giving students a really small selection of notes to choose from can limit the panic mode of not being able to see the music wood for the music trees issues. Let them choose one or two notes and make sure they’ve decided what note to start on.
You can create a really good solo just using one or two notes. It’s all about the rhythm.
One of the hardest things about improvisation is just starting it. Students of all ages just stop and minds go blank and they don’t know what to do. But they just need to start. Once they start playing they can see what works, what doesn’t work, what they meant to say and what they didn’t.
This is quite a difficult hurdle to get over. But if you use the following tips they should soon start building their confidence in playing.
3. Question and Answer
Most music that most of us play is divided into phrases. Or in super simple terms the melody is divided into a question and an answer. Start students with the task of thinking about actual questions (weird and wonderful most definitely welcome) and giving actual answers. This helps with improvising as when you start the melodies will flow better if they sound like they’re developing like an organic conversation.
So ask for some questions – either written down as words, or actually notated rhythms. It could be things like:
What is your name – My name is martha
What are you having for your dinner today – I’m having sausages and chips
Did you see the football last night – No I didn’t I was fast asleep
By structuring it in this way students will start to feel how long the bar lengths are (rather than worrying about having eight beats worth of rhythms and rests) and it will help them make sure that their phrases are of a similar length.
They wouldn’t for example say:
What are you having for your dinner today – Sausages
Well… they might but as a conversation goes it’s not a good one.
For those students who are a bit panicky about improvisation it also makes it more manageable. If they’re doing a twelve bar blues solo and playing question and answers – it means that they actually only have to think of three questions – as the answering phrases should follow on.
Q&A are also a great thing to play together to develop a more interesting solo with you joining in. Play questions and get your students to answer (a great listening game as the answers need to be similar or again it’s a bit of a weird conversation) and vice versa. You can add all sorts of weird and wonderful rhythm and note sequences and if they’re following the students should start to be stretched by it.
4. More rhythm, less notes
Ah the first pitfall of improvisation. Doing so many notes you forget your q&a, where you are and what you meant to do in the first place.
Get the rhythm centred first. Notes are easy to add – but only when the rhythmic variety is interesting.
Why not get the students to try play the same phrase with different rhythms – so change the start from slow notes to fast notes etc etc.
A lot of students are surprised when I tell them they don’t need to play *all* the time! Rests can help break the phrases so the listen can enjoy what you just played. It can give you a moment to think about what you just did and what you’re going to do next. It can also give you a breathing place!
A good improvising challenge is to get students to vary where they place the rest – most of the time it’s at the end of the phrases. Give them the challenge to miss beat 1/2/3/4 or even meaner is getting them to do quaver rests … (not that I’d do that.. far too mean… honest!)
6. Less is more
You do need to remember what it is you’re trying to say. Don’t over load the solo with unnecessary wiggles or by trying too hard. Decide what you’re going to say and say it. Less is more. Whether that’s less note changes, more rests or just getting to the point faster.
If you want a great example of less is more – listen to Miles Davis!
5. Don’t be too predictable
When you’re first starting improvising then the tendency will be to start on the same note and play similar rhythms as you’re building up your confidence. But be aware that if you start being too ‘samey’ that it will start to become predictable. It doesn’t take much to make it varied.
Perhaps alternating the starting note, changing the rests round and swapping rhythms is a good place to start. If you always start with a long note, swap it for shorter ones. Or try playing the same notes, but backwards!
6. Move a bit more
Now I don’t mean faster (unless you really want to go for it!) but variety is the spice of life. It’s really easy to get stuck in the same range of notes – but again a slight change to a lower or higher range can make a big difference. Why not take the same notes but move up or down the octave. Or just move higher and stay there for a bit before moving back down again.
If you need some more tips on improvising – why not check out our freebies section and download some worksheets.
A lot of practice was done this last week on slurring with our students.
Slurring can be tricky to get your head around when you first start learning - but then it can be just as hard to switch off again.
You do need to make sure that the slurring (and other articulation) is there as marked on the piece. If not you can alter the shape of the melody, style of the song and the sounds as a whole. It’s a bit like accidentally putting stress on a word you didn’t mean to and it upsetting somebody. That can be the difference!
You can easily put slurs into your scale practice to help with alternating with slurs and tongued notes.
This way your brain and tongue can co-ordinate without you having to think too much about notes, rhythms, rests, breathing etc etc
Why not play your scales like this:
Slurred in groups of 4
Slurred in groups of 2
Slurred in groups of 3
Slurred in groups of 5 (three and five groups will be difficult – our brains like even groups!)
Or alternate the slurring (S) and tonguing (T) like this:
S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT
TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S TT S-S
T S-S T T S-S T T S-S T T S-S T
You can also then add in staccatos and accents. Maybe try writing a pattern down for you to see to help your brain remember!
You could even compose your own pieces and add some slurs and tongued notes on. Or even get a song that you know really well and add your own articulation on it. Just make sure you’re listening really carefully to make sure that you aren’t over extending the slurs and making them longer!
Five Ways to Learn to Love Your Metronome
Ah the metronome! That annoying clicking, pingy or too quiety thingy that all teachers insist you must have yet everyone avoids practising with.
A lot of my students have been learning to love the metronome this year and have really found it a great practise aid (but I’ll be honest they’ve also found it really difficult too!). But why should it make it harder I hear you say? Well – the simple answer is that we’re not robots. When we play there’s always a bit of an ebb and flow to our sense of timing (even though we try desperately for it to stay ‘in time’). Best example of this was when I started a big band rehearsal with the band at one speed, with a sneaky metronome silenced in the back ground, then turning it on and up half way through a song – it really shocked them to see how much they’d dropped collectively!
But it doesn’t have to be all heart-ache and misery! Metronomes are really useful – and practise with them can be great fun too!
1. Start with the basics – do some rhythm games with it to help your body internalise the beat. If you ‘feel’ the difference between crotchets and quavers you will naturally play them better. So start the metronome and play crotchets alongside – then suddenly swap to quavers (or have someone shout the rhythm changes out!) or minims etc and see if you can keep up and keep changing.
2. Scales practise – to get used to playing ‘in time’ choose some nice easy scales to run up and down in time with the beat. Again – you could play crotchets or quavers, or swung quavers… or dotted quavers….
3. Use it to help with long tone practise – put a really slow count on and if you have the old fashioned metronomes you can see how close time wise you are to holding a note for an extra beat longer. It also means you cant cheat by speeding up your count!
4. Headphones – now this might seem odd, but bear with me. As a teacher of tenor and baritone saxes and all those loud based instruments – just hearing the metronome can be a pain. So – best advice for the battery operated ones is to put some headphones in. Even if you can hear it – sometimes having the sound that little bit closer helps. (But obviously if you’re like me and always forget to change the batteries and rely on an old fashioned wind up one then this won’t help you!)
5. Dexterity – often students find that there’s always a piece of music that has one or two nigglingly bars that the fingers won’t get around in time. This is where you should learn to love your metronome. Isolate the difficult bars and practise them at a really slow speed. Then a tiny bit quicker. Then a bit quicker still. Then at the speed you need it. Then…. Go for it. Way above the speed you need and see what happens. It’ll probably be a car crash *but* when you go back to the speed you wanted in the first place – you’ll probably find that the brain relaxes over it and suddenly it’s easier.
How Duets Can Inspire Your Students?
Ahh… the duet point in any tuition book. How many teachers skip over these because they know most students dread to play them.
Although they can be difficult to do – duets actually can be really good for students in many ways and here’s just some of my favourite reasons.
Intonation! How many times do we get exam results through that moan about intonation? But in an exam situation students panic. Yes, they might be listening to the accompanist but are they listening to themselves? Duets are a fantastic way for students to work on their intonation as the sounds they hear need to blend that little bit closer. They’re also hearing the same sort of sounds (assuming you duet on the same instruments) so again it can really make them have to work out what sound is coming from them and what’s not.
Ensemble experience - Duets are a great introduction to ensemble playing – if they’re keen to join an orchestra or band, but aren’t sure what it feels like then duets can be great starting place.
Listening – You’ve got to listen to make duets work. Unlike being accompanied where the pianist will often work with the soloist to support their lines, duets really do need a sense of balance. The rhythms need to work together, the tone needs to blend, the dynamics need to match etc etc etc. So for the ear – again they’re a great work out!
Breathing – Although all students do remember the breathe when they’re playing (hopefully), duets can help them progress a bit further with their breathing. Because you’re playing together the natural result is that both players begin to breathe at the same time. So it becomes natural and organic, rather than prescribed four bar phrases.
Sight-reading – I know I keep going on about sight-reading (partly because I love it and it really isn’t as scary as students make out!) but duets can also be used to add a different angle to their sight-reading practise. Give them a minute to look over part one, count in and both play it from scratch. This would give them a real boost in the importance of making sure when they perform a sight-reading exercise that they stay in time and learn the importance of keeping going (and blagging it when they’re not sure!!)
Repertoire – There’s such a wide range of duet pieces out there that there is really a vault of untapped music ready to be played. They’re a brilliant filler if you need something extra from the tuition book. There’s always a great array of different styles and genres out there to explore.
So get out there and get them playing more duets!
Well it’s official we’re definitely into a new year! I don’t know about you but I enjoy the start of the new year to plan where I’d like to be at the end of it (those who know me well enough should know by now that I loooooooove a good list). Most people I know write resolutions of things like – get thinner, eat better, exercise more, join a gym… but quite a lot do let these resolutions slide.
I’d a bit believer that if you write it on a list – it will get done! There’s a great statistic that 90% of people will do 90% of a list!
So it’s January – write your list! If you want to eat better and feel better about yourself do it – but be specific. Join a gym isn’t a list item.
1. Sign up to the gym by 5th January
2. Go three times a week
3. Sign up for swimming lessons… they’re list items!
And you can do the same for practising, performing and anything else you want in your musical 2018 year.
Think specifics… is there one area that you know you need to work on…. Is it scales(!), is it breathing and breath control, is it sight reading, is it LH note reading, is it co-ordination, is it your dynamic range, is it intonation on the highest/lowest register. Have a think…. There is always something that we can work on and improve and progress as musicians.
You might also want to set yourself a musical challenge – maybe its finish your tuition book, do a grade, tackle a really difficult piece, perform in front of your family, learn to improvise, join an orchestra.... Again – let your head and your heart lead you! You’re only limited by your imagination!
I do get my students of all ages and abilities to have a think at the start of every term where they’d like to progress to. And at the start of the year it’s an even better time to focus on what you want.
Here’s my music goals for 2018:
1. Spend more time practising on the piano (three times a week)
2. Complete grade 3 cello exam by December
3. Go for teaching / performing diploma exam in the Summer
4. Compose something new every week
Whatever you do – have fun achieving it! Merry 2018 to everyone!!!