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Blog posts of '2018' 'May'

Begin with the Blues

 

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.

 

2. PLAY

 

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.

 

5. Rests

 

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.

 

 

Scales, scales, scales. The bane of many students lives.

 

Personally I quite like scales - you just whiz up and down and boom - job done. But I know a lot of students find it difficult to remember what each scale has in it, but a lot of the time they don’t remember just because they don’t practice them.

If you don’t try then you won’t succeed!

 

Here’s some top tips for #scale #success:

1. Try our alto sax book with backing CD - you can buy a copy here and hear a sample of one of the tracks here.

2. Play some piano chords under your student’s long held notes as they go up the scale to make a smooth and floaty sounding piece.

3. Practice singing the scales before you play them. If you can sing them you can play them!

Start by singing the first five notes of a scale starting on any note then play it.

4. Get them to improvise a new funky rhythm on each note of the scale - you could turn it into a call and response game

5. Put the scales they’re working on into a hat and let them pick out the scales

6. Add different articulation

6. If remembering the sharps and flats - you could add a rhyme or saying for each scale - So F is - Fat Birds (F major, B flat) or G major - Good Fish (G major, F sharp)

 

Don’t leave your scale practice for exams to the last minute. There’s usually far too many for you to take in last minute, and with all of the exam pressure you’ll be under anyway it’s not worth the stress.

So - with plenty of time between now and the next exam dates for all of the exam boards why not make scales a bit more fun by trying this:

 

Make some flash cards.

They can be as pretty or as plain as you wish.

Just cut up some pieces of paper of card into nice squares (or coloured paper, or rectangles or triangles or whatever you fancy).

Write your scale name on the front - say G Major

Then on the back write what sharps or flats are in that scale - so for this one you’d put F# on the back.

When you’re done put them all in a box or a pot and during your practice pick a few out at random and play them.

We like this method of scale practice as you have to think not only how to play that scale but if you got the ‘Bb and F#’ side of the card you would need to know what that scale is without it’s name. (G minor in case you were wondering). So it really makes you know your scales inside and out. Also it means that if you keep the scales out you’ve already done you can make sure you practice all of them - not just the easy ones. You can also divide the pile up into 'easy’ and 'needs work’ to make sure those you find challenging get the work they need.

Also we prefer to get our students to practice scales by ear and memory rather than using the notation as this is what you need to do in the exams.

For piano students – why not print off and try our free piano #scale exercises! By the time you get through these you’ll definitely know your scales inside and out.

 

Remember - there’s no such thing as a difficult scale (even though I hate Ab melodic minor) = there are just those that you’re not as familiar with.

 

 

 

 

 

Parent Help Time: How to Stop Pulling Your Hair Out (and Get those Kids Practising!)

 

Parents Help Time:

How to Stop Pulling Your Hair Out (And Get Those Kids Practising)

 

 

Ah practise. One of the worst words children hear – that and homework.

 

I know it’s difficult as a parent. Music lessons are *not* cheap. So if you don’t see the progression and you feel they’re not progressing through the grades or you are literally pulling your hair out trying to get them to practise, I know the temptation is to stop lessons. But here’s some advice on why you shouldn’t and why perhaps those lessons are more important that you might think. And there’s some great tips on how to make the dreaded practise fun again.

 

Why You Should Stick it Out

 

As a teacher I know that music lessons really are worth their weight in gold for students, but as a parent I do know the financial burden as well. With rising costs of living, poorer wages, no wage rises and the fact that children do expect to do so many things at the same time, it can be a difficult balancing act. One thing I’m reminded of it that so many adult students tell me that they wished their parents would have made them stick to music lessons, as they now can see the benefit. But I know this doesn’t help you if you’re practically dragging them there and then seeing the piano sat gathering dust in the corner. Perhaps it is something to consider though.

 

Usually in a 1-2-1 situation you’re paying for basically a bespoke service (if it was something on etsy or not on the highstreet that would instantly add another 0 to the price!). Lessons are structured to your son or daughters needs and tastes and rate of progression. The reason I love teaching so much is that no two students are ever the same. You can start two students of the same age on the same day with the same book and yes they might overlap, but after the first couple of lessons it’s completely different. As a teacher you need to learn to teach exactly the same thing in a million and one different ways. And then I can’t also not mention that sometimes it’s not *just* about progressing through a book. It’s learning to read, co-ordination, dexterity, breath control and not to mention confidence building.

 

And there’s all of that even before you factor in the human element. The joy of 1-2-1 lessons is that you do get to know your students, their mood, their stresses and strains and the outside world can’t help but filter into a lesson time.

 

Are you Expecting Too Much?

 

Most students have 30 minute lessons, but some are even 20. But if you take out 5 minutes for setting up, relaxing into the lesson with a minute of chatting about practise and how they got on with the pieces, 5 minutes of warming the instrument and the brain, and then allow 5 mins at the end to wind down and go over things that need to be worked on… That’s 15 minutes. 15 minutes to play the pieces that were set last week, start something new and go over any new issues.

 

I’m not saying sign up for longer lessons! For most students 30 minutes is the perfect length of time. But, before you cancel lessons completely perhaps it’s worth a thought about what you’re truly expecting. They say it takes about 10,000 hours to truly master something. And that would be straightforward improving every week mastering. They’ll take a step forward and a step back, they might race ahead and then get stuck. You just never know!

 

There’s no right answer for the rate at which students ‘should’ progress. Personally I hate the pressure that we feel about music exams – that if we’re learning something, not just music, then we need to do exams to validate what we do. Other countries don’t do exams, and for those that do there isn’t sure a need to be grade 5 by the time they get to secondary school like we have over here.

 

Yes, I know the pressure for students to get into a good secondary school is so much greater than it was when I was at school, and I know that by the time my little one’s getting towards year 6 and SAT’s I might suddenly start enrolling in French classes etc too! But something to consider… are exams really worth it if your son / daughter isn’t interested? I know they’re supposed to count for UCAS points, but actually most universities don’t look at them. I did a full blown music degree. Did they want to see the certificate before I started, nope, did anyone ever ask if I passed with a merit or distinction, nope. Could I have done the course without it – yes I could. Because I enjoy and love music. And that trumps pieces of paper every time hands down.

 

As a teacher I do encourage exams yes, but not for exams sake. Learning three pieces to pass an exam and get a piece of paper will do nothing for a student. If anything it will make them bored and hate it in the long run. Reasons not to do an exam (and why exams are bad for you) – are in another post that I wrote here.

 

So my question really is – are you expecting a return on your investment? Does your son / daughter feel the pressure of ‘having’ to do well so they’re not willing to relax enough to enjoy it. Are they actually getting more out of the lessons than you can see on the page?

 

Trust the Teacher

 

A good teacher really is worth their weight in gold (or chocolate and gin if any of my students are reading this).

 

So if you have any concerns about practise (or lack of) do talk to the teacher first. It could be your worry about practise isn’t anything to be concerned about. If the teacher is happy with the rate of progression, then hooray!

 

Don’t tell my students, but *actually* sometimes you can progress without having practised. Sometimes the brain does just need a few days to process ideas, but not all the time though.

 

Perhaps the teacher has a few ideas on what they should be focusing more – would a notebook for the teacher to write in help, so that way you know what they should be practising help?

 

Getting Bums on Seats:

 

(or just the instrument out of the case…)

 

Now this is where we get to the difficult bit. Actually getting students to practise…. Perhaps you’ve had to be mean parent and deliver the final ultimatum – no practise and you’ll stop the lessons… or perhaps you’re getting to that stage and don’t know where to turn.

 

Here’s a few hints and tips that might help.

 

The most important thing to remember is that music is supposed to be fun. Has all the nagging about practising zapped the fun out of it? Is looking at dull repertoire making their brains turn off? Sometimes that final serious ultimatum is needed for them to realise that you’re serious and for them to take responsibility for their lessons, but sometime it can backfire.

 

There are things you can do though:

 

Let them have fun. Encourage them to try something new – jazz, pop, music games on the ipad, learning a song by memory, playing along to a CD, finding something to listen to on youtube.

Could you sit and practise with them? Or even more importantly – could you just spend time listening to them practise?

 

A lot of parents feel lost when it comes to music – most haven’t learnt an instrument. But this doesn’t matter. Just listen. Encourage. You’ll hear when it sounds right and when it doesn’t, usually this is a great starting place.

 

Could you get your son / daughter to teach you something? Why don’t you let them be the teacher and learn the basics to play along. You’d be surprised how easy it is to self teach music via books and the web nowadays. Learn enough to play with them (and don’t worry about technique which the books can’t teach you, if you’re simply playing for fun, fun, fun).

 

Why not just have a jam and play something silly together. I know this is harder with teenagers but they still might enjoy just messing around.

 

ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE

 

Their lessons happen at the same time, the alarm goes off at the same time, meals and TV time happen at the same time. So why don’t you make practise routine and just part of something that happens during the day. Routine really does work – you probably know yourself the things that you’ve been meaning to do for ages just get lost in the sea of ‘stuff’ that needs doing. And practise is the same.

 

Same day, same time. Get in from school, quick 10 -15 minutes before they go to the next club, or have dinner, or flop in front of the TV or electronic device of their choosing.

 

Try not to say that they can’t have the ipad etc unless they practise, as they’ll then soon end up resenting doing it in the first place – it should be just something that they do. Get home, practise, go on and do other things. If it’s not a big thing (unlike this blog post!) then they might find they spend longer doing it.

 

Little and often works.

 

Sometimes just a quick 10 minutes before school everyday (I know – our house is crazy rushed on a morning getting everyone up and out the door on time, but some people find this early morning routine helps).

 

Keep Track

 

You can see what routine works and doesn’t if you keep tabs. Younger students enjoy having practise charts and things to tick and stick stickers on – so you could try this at home. A tick every practise session and they get a sticker reward.

 

If you’re seeing a pattern of when you can find the time then you can see whether turning it into a slightly longer session works or whether little and often just helps.

 

It won’t take much to build confidence and increase note reading ability. They should see and feel a difference in how they play within a week or two if a practise routine is made.

 

Inspire

 

If routine and everything is just becoming too much of a battle my next suggestion would be to back off and take a slightly different approach.

 

Can you find a local concert with some musicians playing the same, or similar instruments. The BBC young musician of the year programmes are a brilliant example of what determination and a lot of practise can achieve.

 

Live music is a wonderful thing as it always inspires the desire to play. They might then want to learn a different style or a new piece based on the concert.

 

Hopefully these ideas will help you encourage your son/ daughter/ grandchild to practise (and thanks for sticking with me – this has become a bit of an epic post!). It’s not easy. They will be demotivated and not want to practise every now and then – because music is hard.

 

It’s a completely new language but the rewards really do out weigh the annoyances. Stick with it.

 

Remember: You might not see the progression but they will be progressing.

 

Finally – just remember. Music is more than learning to play an instrument. It’s self expression and relaxation and much, much more.

 

If you want more hints and tips – why not come and say hello on our facebook group. If you want to chat more with other parents about the joys and pitfalls of encouraging practise – come join out Parents Practise Page