‘Chopsticks’ on the Piano

Everyone who learns to play the piano (or at least nearly everyone!) will have come across ‘Chopsticks’ at some point – it is one of those pieces that everyone randomly learns either from others or from a book.

It is a fun piece to play but that’s not all – it is a actually technically a good piece to practice and it also helps you to build confidence in moving your right hand in particular on the piano/ keyboard.

If you haven’t got your hands on the sheet music yet, go to http://www.musescore.com, type in ‘chopsticks for piano’ and you can download it.

Here is a good tutorial for the piece as well:

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Learn to Play ‘Endure’ by Ivan Castro

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Some pieces for the piano (and other instruments) sound more complex than what they are – once the technique behind them has been polished and the piece has been memorized well, they sound beautiful and more demanding than what they actually are.

An example of such a piece for the piano is ‘Endure’ by Ivan Castro. If you listen to it in the links below, you will see what I mean. Note patterns for the left hand are very repetitive and the right hand does a lot of scale and arpeggio patterns that sound fancy but are fairly straight-forward to learn.

Have a go and enjoy this beautiful piece!

Great tutorial by PeterPlutax:

Excellent version of the piece:

Great Youtube Channels for Piano Tutorials

Luckily nowadays we all have easy access to internet and so learning to play a musical instrument is made even easier given the great help and guidance that we can find on various websites!

When learning to play a piece of music, it is always good to listen to the piece regularly so as not to learn it the wrong way. This is where various youtube channels come in handy – and they are also handy if there is a piece or a song that you would like to learn and don’t have the sheet music for it.

Here is our top four most used youtube channels that we regularly check and follow for inspiration and guidance:

1. Peter Plutax – great mix of easy-ti-intermediate level piano tutorials with covers of current pop songs added regularly;

2. The Theorist – excellent site for piano tutorials on more advanced players with classics and more recent pop songs being added regularly;

3. ABRSM – this is the official site for the ABRSM examination centre and includes tutorials and clips on various aspects of their music exams; if you are getting ready for a grade exams, be sure to check this site out;

4. Trinity College London – this is the official site for the Trinity College of Music if you are following their exam system; lots of helpful clips and guidance to be found here to get you ready for your exam in style.

Sibelius – perhaps the most well-known composer from Finland

Over the past few weeks, we have been learning about different classical music composers in our music theory classes. Sometimes we can be so focussed on playing the music that we forget about the forces behind the creation of such wonderful pieces!

This past week we learnt about Sibelius, perhaps the all time greatest Finn in the realm of classical music. Having been born in Finland and spending the first 18 years of my life there, it feels appropriate to share some knowledge of this great composer – in particular since Finland has always been considered to be a relatively small country in the back burner even if many brilliant things came from there such as Nokia and Kimi Raikkonen, not to forget the amazing education system that always tops any leader boards on education outcomes!

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Jean Sibelius, born Johan Julius Christian Sibelius (8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957), was a Finnish composer and violinist of the late Romantic and early-modern periods. He is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.

The core of his oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies which, like his other major works, are regularly performed and recorded in his home country and internationally. His other best-known compositions are Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto, the choral symphony Kullervo, and The Swan of Tuonela (from the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by nature, Nordic mythology, and the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, over a hundred songs for voice and piano, incidental music for numerous plays, the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower), chamber music, piano music, Masonic ritual music, and 21 publications of choral music.

Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s, but after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music for The Tempest (1926) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he stopped producing major works in his last thirty years, a stunning and perplexing decline commonly referred to as “The Silence of Järvenpää”, the location of his home. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he attempted to continue writing, including abortive efforts on an eighth symphony. In later life, he wrote Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works while retaining an active but not always favourable interest in new developments in music.

The Finnish 100 mark note featured his image until 2002, when the euro was adopted.Since 2011, Finland has celebrated a Flag Day on 8 December, the composer’s birthday, also known as the “Day of Finnish Music”.In 2015, the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, a number of special concerts and events were held, especially in the city of Helsinki.

What Musical Instrument to Learn First?

‘What is a good musical instrument to learn first?’ is a question I hear as often as ‘When is a good age to start learning?’. We are all different and many of these questions can be answered once you get to know the individual in question – it is hard to generalize. Yet, there are certain instruments that have over time been hailed as ‘good first instruments’. We often hear about piano and piano keyboard that they are helpful for getting a good basic idea of music as one can easily learn notation and simple songs on them.

Out of curiosity, I researched the topic and discovered the most common first musical instruments in the UK. Here is the top ten:

1. Keyboard 30 %
2. Piano 28%
3. Recorder 28%
4. Classical guitar 20%
5. Drum kit 14%
6. Electric Guitar 13%
7. Violin 12%
8. Percussion 6%
9. Bass Guitar 5%

The findings are based on instruments learn in and out of schools (ABRSM, 2016
http://www.firsttutors.com/uk/music/blog/2016/04/top-ten-musical-instruments-2016-cost-of-music-lessons-and-some-interesting-facts/).

So it does seem like keyboard and piano come out on top – yet we should not forget that different factors influence these outcomes, such as practical issue, e.g. it is much easier to have a keyboard at your house than a whole drum kit.
It has also been found that the level of parent’s education influences the decision of which instrument their child learns; some parents might not even be educated enough to consider other options than the keyboard. When parents themselves have received music education and been exposed to different types of music, they are more likely to consider other instrument options.

As an anecdote, yesterday my 5-year-old son came home from school having had his first ukulele lesson – he was buzzing with excitement. Not only because he is learning to play a musical instrument, but he also liked the social aspects of learning to play together with his friends. This social aspects seems to be an important factor to consider when younger kids are concerned as they might feel more motivated to learn when encouraged by their peers.

Therefore, I would say that any musical instrument is a good place to start – in any case, the student would learn all the basics of music, enjoy developing a new skill and potentially cultivating a life-long interest in music.

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Aural Learning vrs Photographic Memory

We all have our individual and unique ways of learning and approaches to new tasks at hand. Our preferred learning styles are the cumulative result of what we have learnt at school,and out of school – and our general approaches to learning new things.

Some of us learn better by looking at something – for example, they can easily memorize something after reading it or seeing it written down. This is often referred to as photographic memory.

Some of us learning easier by hearing something or listening to someone explain something to us – for example, by another person playing something on an instrument and then copying it with one’s own instrument.

No matter what your learning style,luckily nowadays there are suitable teaching approaches and resources to everyone. For teachers, it is important that they communicate their preferred way of learning to their one-to-one music teacher so that the teacher can adjust the lessons accordingly. Don’t be shy about stating your preferences as that way everyone gets the most of the lessons!

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What Happened to Overall Development as a Pianist and Musician?

We live in a competitive society where exams are taken for all sorts of abilities and skills. This is true nowadays at least in most European countries. Young people grow up with competitive mentalities and under pressure to perform – this can be good; but in excess it can also be damaging.

This mentality also applies to music education. The graded exam system for musical instruments, singing and music theory has become increasingly popular over the past years and the majority of students want to do them. This is good for getting used to performing in front of others – as well as learning the materials for the exam – and receiving proof of one’s level of ability and learning.

Yet, the exams seems to be overtaking the learning process so much (at least with some students!) that the overall learning process gets sidelined and the sole focus is on passing the exam. But what about developing your skills and ability on general level and, as a result, becoming a confident and capable performer?

I always advice students to do roughly one instrumental exam per year – I strongly feel that everyone needs a fairly good amount of time for developing their overall musicianship abilities and becoming confident and capable musicians. This makes getting ready for the exams so much easier as well – you don’t feel like you are having to learn something very hard but rather you feel that you are at the right level for learning the exam material. What I have witnessed many times is that students just want to pass the exams and so just focus on the exam materials, but then they struggle as they are not yet at high enough level to learn the materials well.

As a teacher, I feel that I need to guide them in not just focussing on exams, but also their overall musicianship skills and, most importantly of all, their enjoyment of playing a musical instrument as well as providing them with a creative outlet.

Here is to enjoying learning to play music and not to stressing over exams!

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Jazz or Classical Music Exam Route?

Nowadays a number of our students choose to do grade exams on their instrument. The exams are a more formal and official way of illustrating someone’s ability and level of playing a musical instrument – when someone asks about your ability to play, by telling them of the grade that you are at will give them a good idea. At the same time, when applying for schools or scholarships, having passed your grade exams, will demonstrate our commitment to your instrument and you can score extra points from having passed such exams.

With any musical instrument that you play, it is better not to start doing grade exams till you feel ready and have mastered all the basics. It will be much easier to learn your materials for Grade One once you feel confident in your technique and your sight-reading ability. A good way to test whether you are ready for a grade exam is by going along to the Pre-Test. This Prep Test is ‘a soft landing’ to grade exams. It gives you a good idea of what the exams are all about and whether you are ready to embark on the exam journey.

The Prep Test has the same structure as the following exams – you will need to learn and memorize three pieces, do an aural test (consists of clapping, humming and some music theory related questions) and play scales. For the Prep-Test, you will receive a short written report with an indication if you passed. For the following exams, you will receive a full report with a break down for how many points you received for each sections followed by points. You will need at least 100 points to pass, 120 for a merit and 140 for a distinction.

There are 8 grades in total, after which you can carry on to study for a diploma.

After playing your instrument for a few years, you might have grown to like playing different types of music. For the Grade Exams, you can chose between Jazz Exams or Classical Exams. If you opt for the classical route, you will be learning beautiful classical pieces either by famous composers or more recent modern pieces by contemporary composers. For the jazz route, you will be learning blues and jazz pieces in more traditional or modern forats. All the jazz pieces will include sections for improvisations ad free styling.

In a nutshell, if you crave something more creative, go for the jazz ones; if you enjoy playing from notation and learning grand classical pieces, go for the classical route!

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Music Teacher Training Project in Uganda: Final Report on the Pilot Study

Our exploratory pilot study on the current practices and ways forward in the field of music education in Uganda took place from September 2017 to March 2018. During this time, we collected a vast sample of data from education professionals in Uganda, and conducted a thorough literature review on music education in the country. The exploratory approach enabled us to remain open-minded and with explored the issue with curiosity.

The main findings highlighted the evident discrepancy between the very musical culture across Uganda and the lack of and poor standard of music education found in schools. One would think that a country with such rich musical traditions would place emphasis on ensuring that the younger generations are educated in the field; however, what we discovered is that locals want to learn practical musical skills, yet schools fail to deliver music to a high enough standard. Further findings were a lack of national monitoring and assessment in music, as well as teachers feeling poorly qualified to teach the subject.

Moreover, a significant finding was that there is a need for professional musicians across the country, as live musical performances take place daily in all sorts of cultural functions ranging from school ceremonies to funeral. The fact that the younger generation are not learning practical musical skills in school is resulting in there being a growing void of professional musicians. At the same time, unemployment and poverty amongst the youth are increasing. This indicates that the young could be trained in practical musical skills in order to assist them in finding employment as musicians and avoiding falling into poverty.

We are currently seeking further funding for building a larger-scale project on the basis of the findings. The intention of the bigger project would be to trial training teachers in music and piloting a new improved music education curriculum. As part of the project, awareness of workshops on choosing music s a career would also be piloted.

For a full report on the findings from the first study, please see:

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Emotional Aspects of Musical Performance

Learning to read musical notes is a task that many students find tedious and often want to put it off – yet, it is crucial to learn to read note in order to be able to play pieces of music without anyone’s assistance. It can be quite a technical and mechanical task that requires a great deal of repetition.

What often happens is that students get so fixed on solely looking at the musical notes that they forget to consider other aspects of the music, such as dynamics and correct rhythm. This then results in the musical piece not sounding right and rather just as if someone is playing one note after the other from a random task.

When we think about musical performances, or even music that we listen to regularly, it is clear that there is so much more at play than simply playing the correct musical notes. Correct rhythm is important for getting the melody of pieces to come out; dynamics add variety to the piece and make them more colorful; slow or fast tempo of a piece create a different feeling in the listener… All these different aspects combined together result in a beautiful musical performance that evokes feelings in the listener (as well as the performer).

What we often hear from parents is that the student is not considering anything else than the musical notes when they do note reading, e.g. not the dynamics or even the correct lengths for the notes. This seems to be most true for students under the age of 12. It seems that the majority of this age group are so focussed on looking at the notes that they simply forget to consider any other aspects of playing the piece. When students reach the age of 11 or 12, they seem to pay more attention to the emotional connotations of music, as well as the correct rhythm.

There are plenty of exercises that can help with assisting students to consider the rhythm, dynamics and tempo of a piece. If this is something that the teacher and the parents feel like they need to work on, there are specific books out there for this. Another simple way to encourage students to consider these other aspects is to let them listen to music or take them to a concert and ask them to feel the music. Afterwards you can have a chat with them about how the music made them feel and what elements of the music made them feel in certain ways. That should help them consider these other aspects when playing new pieces on their own.

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