Black Cat Strut (Improv)

The black cat strut is not my own activity. It comes from 88 Piano Keys. My students enjoyed it so much this year, I wanted to remember it, plus a few notes from my experience.

  • As she recommends, I didn’t show my students anything. It was entirely done by memory and ear.
  • For the youngest students, you can give them just three melody notes: C, D, E.
  • More advanced students can handle all the ones she mentions in the instructions.
  • If the student hasn’t learned dotted quarter note rhythms yet, just explain the left hand pattern as a dotted half note and a quarter note.
  • I don’t have iRealPro, so I didn’t use her recorded drum beat. It’s a great improv even without it.


The Rakes of Mallow (Learn by Rote)

Occasionally, I discover that some of my students who should know their finger numbers backwards and forwards, do not actually know their finger numbers at all. This week, we got a head start on St. Patrick’s Day, learned an Irish song by rote, and reviewed those finger numbers with absolutely everyone.

The song we learned was the traditional Irish tune called “The Rakes of Mallow.” You can listen to a symphonic version by Leroy Anderson here.

The key to teaching a song by rote is to break it up into easily remembered sections. Here’s how I did it:

  • The first six notes. I played them and had the student tell me what finger numbers I used and then play it back.


  • The next four notes. I slowed it down so they could call out the finger numbers as we went (4-3-2-1). We pointed out that this is just a scale, which all of them have done. Then they played it back.


  • The main theme. I played steps 1 and 2 together in time. They played it back.


  • The variation on the main theme. We have done motifs before, so we talked about how our ears like repetition. The next phrase is the same motif that we have already learned. We just need to slide our hand down one note and play it again. (This is not necessarily the fingering I would use if I were playing it myself, but it is the easiest to remember when you are learning by rote.) After learning this step, we played everything we knew so far. We are now half way through the song.


  • The third phrase is another variation on the theme. We slide our hands back up to C position, so we think we’re going back to the beginning, but at the end there’s a surprise. Again, we played everything we knew.


  • After the surprise, we get to have the same scale that we skipped at the end of the last phrase.


  • Except we keep going past the C and then come back up to an E. Here I fingered it differently, depending on the student. For beginners, they brought up their left hand to play the B. The more advanced students did a 2nd finger cross over. This was the hardest step for everyone.


  • The very easy grand finale.



For some of my students, this took all the time we had. For others, we had time left over, so we:

  • Played it as a duet. I accompanied.
  • Played it with different dynamics.
  • Played it with different speeds.
  • Made it minor.
  • Transposed.

If you’d like to see the entire song together, check out Rakes of Mallow here. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!



For Health and Strength (Learn by Rote)

Certain of my students are really struggling with developing an ear, so a simple song that can lead to success without a lot of tears along the way is a good thing.

“For Health and Strength” is a traditional song, which is appropriate for Thanksgiving, fairly well known, and easy to learn, so it ticked all the boxes for ear training this month, and every one of my students picked it up pretty quickly, following this method:

  • Place the hands in middle C position.
  • Starting in the right hand, play four notes, three of which are the same:
    • G G G F
  • Then play the same pattern, but start on E:
    • E E E D
  • Play the same pattern again, but start on C:
    • C C C B
  • Start at the top and play the whole sequence:
    • G G G F   E E E D   C C C B
  • Our song doesn’t sound finished until we add a long home note at the end:
    • G G G F   E E E D   C C C B   C
  • The last thing we add is the pickup note at the beginning. It’s a low G. So our final sequence is:
    • G (low)  G G G F   E E E D   C C C B   C


Once they knew the basic song, we did a number of things depending on interest and ability level:

  • Play it in a round.
  • Transpose
  • Play it with duet accompaniment in various styles.
  • Create a variation in the melody by shaking up the rhythm or articulation or dynamics or making it minor.

Alternatively, you could also use this fakebook version to practice a different skill set with the same song.