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Outside the box... inside the comfort zone

8 years ago

  Richard Smith presents practical tips to fire students’ imagination and add some fun to instrumental lessons. Opportunities abound for teachers to broaden and enrich students' activities in their lessons, at the same time enhancing the enjoyment of learning. The following suggestions may not be first choice for all teachers, but each can fulfil a unique and memorable role, and if at first they look daunting, a little thought and preparation can make their inclusion a rewarding experience for both teacher and student.


Many a young student comes to an early music lesson proudly brandishing a composition written at home. No doubt the teacher listens with interest and responds appropriately. But very often this practice stops after a few weeks. Why? Why should such a basic creative activity die just when particularly relevant skills start to develop? This kind of creativity can be kindled, even if the teacher is not a fluent composer. A rewarding place to start is to analyse the structure of the early tunes that a student is learning; for example, Old MacDonald had a farm starts with a two-bar melody fragment, followed by a two-bar answering phrase (see Figure 1). The next four bars simply repeat the opening four bars. Bar nine (starting 'With a quack quack here ... ') introduces the simplest counter melody – one repeated note! This kind of analysis can help students to give a similar structure to the tunes they write at home, helping to make consequent compositions more rewarding. When such well-known tunes have been learned, the teacher can encourage students to write their own variations on them!


It can be a liberating experience to play without written music. Try clapping a rhythm for the student to copy, as in one of the ABRSM Prep Test listening games. After two or three variations, ask the student to clap a different rhythm in response. Then add pitch to that rhythm and an improvised melody results. Using ABRSM’s book of Jazz Piano Quick Studies for Grade 1, students can practise playing a two-bar phrase then devising a two-bar answer. I have found both books useful starting points for introducing improvisation. Figure 1: Old MacDonald


When a student has completed an early simple tune, try playing it in another key. For example, Three blind mice can be transposed from C major into G major, which is not only a very effective way of introducing F#, but can also serve as a teaching aid to learn the T - T - S - T - T - T - S structure of the major scale. Row, row, row your boat can be played in both C major and G major without any accidentals at all. Then play it starting on A and the student will almost naturally play it in A minor, and be able to hear the typical minor mood created with no apparent difference in note sequence (see Figure 2).

Playing by ear

I think I am not the only music teacher to despair on seeing some of the sheet music to students' favourite pop songs. Frequently they are written out in three lines with the vocal part (tune) separated from the accompaniment which consequently excludes the melody and is either too easy or too hard for the student to play. Often students find the dotted-crotchet–quaver–crotchet rhythm of the bass drum on a pop recording difficult to replicate in a written bass line. The result is a frustrating few weeks in which student and teacher try to make sense of what may be in any case a fairly lacklustre arrangement. All too often the result is reluctant abandonment of the piece and the selection of a replacement which may not be as musically appealing to the student as the favourite pop song but is at least playable. Working out an arrangement by ear is a happy medium. Recently I have found the Adele song Someone Like You an accessible introduction, for Grade 2-level students, to the A major scale. For the teacher a useful starting point to practise playing by ear is to analyse the chord sequences of well-known pieces – Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C is straightforward but with very colourful chords and Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag has some interesting inversions. Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ is a simple tonic–dominant–tonic chord sequence in a minor key which is then repeated in the relative major.

Writing out an arrangement

This can be an alternative to working out a piece by ear and may ameliorate the frustration of the purchased sheet music experienced above. The printed melody line of the pop song may be what the student plays on the violin or flute and a friend who plays the cello or bass may like to play the bottom line of the accompaniment as a bass part. The teacher can help by writing out the two salient parts on manuscript paper or perhaps with the help of a musical software package – a surprisingly quick undertaking.

Reading lead sheets

Take a look at We shall not be moved presented as a lead sheet, in which the tune is written out in traditional notation and the accompaniment consists of a series of chords (see Figure 3). The notes of the chord of G7 are the same as those for the dominant 7th arpeggio of C major (G B D F). Figure 3: We shall not be moved Pianists often use lead sheets but they can be equally effective for other instruments. Clarinettists, flautists, violinists and players of monophonic instruments can get together and play chords in the same way that a brass or woodwind section might do in a band or orchestra.

Building on the basics

The importance of learning the basics should never be overlooked and the responsible teacher will seek to ensure that students receive a comprehensive grounding in playing techniques, as well as music literacy, listening skills, sight-reading/-singing and the other necessary ingredients covered by the ABRSM exam syllabus. However, there should always be time for some extra fun, imagination and flair. If these suggestions are new, start simply. Take each concept step-by-step, practising every idea by itself to build confidence. Then introduce it into a lesson with a receptive student, perhaps working as equals on a hitherto unknown area. Many students relish the prospect of working on a par with the teacher in this way, discovering together a new colour in the sonic kaleidoscope of music. They respond positively and creatively to such stimuli and appreciate the added dimension to their lessons!

Richard Smith is a piano teacher, songwriter and member of ABRSM’s professional development panel.

This article was originally featured in the September 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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