Song of Middle C

Ever since I started my piano teaching career at the age of 14, I’ve  attempted to provide appropriate ‘waiting room’ materials for my piano students, things that are engaging enough to promote quiet waiting behaviour for the the 2 or 3 minutes (hopefully no more than that) that might pass between the student’s arrival and the start of their lesson proper. Good and well, but finding books or activities that fit the bill is actually quite a bit more difficult than it seems.  One solution, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-sections series, seemed ideal – lots to look at, an educational element, all the kinds of things that one looks for in this circumstance. But one day the students started giggling as they looked through, and giggled loudly enough that it was distracting to the student whose lesson was just concluding. Turns out Mr Biesty has incredibly included somewhere tucked away on every page of his cross-sections one poor soul caught in

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P Plate Piano: What is it and why?

On November 1, 2009, throughout Australia, a new series of books from the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) will be available in all good music shops: P Plate Piano Books 1, 2 & 3. Australian piano teachers will be quite curious about these new books.  The AMEB only publishes materials that are for use in conjunction with their examinations, and the title P Plate Piano doesn’t sound like anything like an examination! And it’s not an examination.  But it is an assessment.  And there’s a difference… But we’ll come back to that later. Firstly, P Plate Piano is a series you can use alongside any of the method books you use now, and the first book corresponds roughly to the skill level a student would have achieved at the end of the first book of any of the well-known method books. The idea of this series is to map out the various keyboard skills and techniques that students need to master

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The Dominant is Daggy

For readers from the northern hemisphere and non-English speaking backgrounds, “daggy” is a wonderful word used in Australia and New Zealand to denote that which is embarrassingly out of fashion…. It was back in 2005 when I attended a Rolling Stones concert (for the first time in my life) that I realised what made the Rolling Stones so ‘cool’:  the almost complete absence of the dominant chord in their tunes.  More than that, in fact, because this absence of the dominant was accompanied by an abundance of the subdominant. This is all classical-speak for saying that the Rolling Stones use chord I and chord IV (C and F, for instance) and almost no chord V (G). Now, I haven’t sat down and catalogued the occurrences of the various kinds of chords in Rolling Stones numbers to be able to support this assertion, but certainly in the play list the Rolling Stones for that September 2005 Madison Square Gardens appearance the

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What are we teaching for?

The purpose of having piano lessons is quite straightforward (one would think): one wishes to learn to play the piano, and by taking lessons one assumes that one will learn to do so. The thing is that ‘playing the piano’ can mean so very many different things. I have often made the joke that when an adult student starts with me they tell that they want to learn to play the piano, but what they really mean is that they want to learn to play “Piano Man”. And in this there is a big clue.  What each person intends when they say that they want to learn to play the piano is highly dependent on the music they know and the music they have seen being made. So, by ‘playing the piano’ do we mean being able to play a Chopin Nocturne? Do we mean being able to play keyboard in a pop/rock group? Do we mean accompanying other instrumentalists

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How I came to compose educational piano music

This blog has been a bit of an experiment so far – an experiment in how-to-blog, as far as I am concerned, and I’ve realised that I probably haven’t included a whole lot of useful factual information about myself so far….. So to rectify a little: I’ve been composing educational piano music since 1995 when an adult student (probably no older than 22 at the time) said to me “But what I really want to do is to play the way you do when you are playing your own music”.  This set me back quite a bit, as I had never given any thought to teaching my students to play the way I did when I wasn’t performing ‘repertoire’.  My teaching was somewhat traditional in terms of content, style, outcomes and expectations.  But my performing life was anything but traditional, and many parents had sent their children to me to have lessons after they had seen me performing. My adult student

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Repertoire Choices: the start of the year

When choosing repertoire for their students, piano teachers often find themselves navigating a dangerous course between discouraging and dull, and these somewhat negative terms of reference frame the often frought quest for music that will inspire, instruct and entertain. The start of the new teaching year sees returning pupils full of enthusiasm for the sheet music they bring with them to that first lesson, maybe the music their much more advanced best friend is learning, maybe the latest piano-based pop song, and (these days) maybe something they saw on YouTube and downloaded from a free sheet music website. No matter what, the music is likely to be much more technically demanding than the student’s current skill set caters for, possibly unpianistic and, to top it off, of limited pedagogic value. There are a number of ways for a piano teacher to respond to this enthusiasm (and attendant sheet music).  The first is to discard whatever plans may have been laid

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How hard is a piece of music: exhibit A

The trouble with grading a piece of piano music is that one has to agree that certain things that one can do on the piano should be learned in a particular order.  The traditional view is that the easiest music is where the thumbs share middle C and only white notes are played. Oh yes, and the rhythm should be a simple sequence of crotchets. Meantime, school kids from all ends of the globe gather around classroom pianos to teach each other a sequence of tonic chords (moving around the keyboard, in a swing groove) to be played in duet with a friend playing a melody that requires shifts in hand position (or, I suppose, turning over the thumb) and an extension beyond the five-finger position. And nearly every school child with access to a piano seems to be able to learn this feat of keyboard skill. Should we be taking a new look at what makes a piece of

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