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.
If you’d like to see the entire song together, check out Rakes of Mallow here. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Sight reading is an important skill, but practicing it is inherently boring for most students. Anything to make it more interesting is a welcome relief. In Chinese culture, seeing a dragon is a sign of good luck, something that is definitely helpful when you are trying to sightread. So to celebrate Chinese New Year this week, we present the Sight Reading Dragon.
I find that picking music that is two levels behind their current level usually works. For the students in the first level, I just use a different series, go back as far as I can in the book to the easier pieces and, if necessary, break it up into one measure at a time.
Loop one strip of paper, staple it closed and staple, tape, or glue or glue it to the back of the dragon’s head. This is necessary to get the paper chain started.
How to Play:
This is a studio-wide game, it will not be complete until all students have had their lesson for the week.
For every measure or section the students correctly sight read, they earn one strip of paper to add to the paper chain.
The goal is to make our brightly colored dragon as long as possible. I’ll be leaving mine up for a week so that everyone can see how long it grew.
For some students, I made it more competitive. I told them what the highest number of strips earned was and challenged them to beat that number. I didn’t do this with everyone, for the obvious reason that as a competition it’s totally unfair. They didn’t all get the same amount of time, some of them are beginning readers, some of them had longer sight reading selections, etc. But for some kids, the desire to win kept them going.
Among my students, Valentine’s Day is controversial. Their reaction ranges from love to hate, with most hovering around total indifference. Fortunately, there is a way to make a Valentine’s activity that appeals to all of the above because the poems range from the traditionally sweet, through the silly surprising, down to the frankly insulting. I used this activity with all my students of all levels. The only difference was that the more advanced students could do it faster and with less help.
Show the student all the Valentine poems so they can pick their favorite.
Determine the time signature.
I do this by telling them I’m going to clap and say the first measure (“Roses are”). Once they figure out that it’s in 3/4 time, they can write that before the first word of the poem.
Draw the first bar line.
Since I’ve already told them that the first measure ends after the word “are,” they need a bar line there.
Draw the first three notes above the first three syllables.
Repeat counting and saying the first measure. Some students may need a few hints to realize that each of those syllables gets a quarter note.
Finish the first line.
Count and say the entire first line. I made the final word a dotted half note. Obviously, alternate rhythms are possible, but the main point is not what the rhythm is, but whether the student can identify and write whatever rhythm you do.
Dictate the second line.
I did it as a whole line now that they have the idea of what to do.
Point out that the rhythm between first and second lines are exactly the same. That is normal and expected in this type of poetry. In music, it would be called a rhythmic motif.
Repeat the process for the third and fourth lines. The rhythms here will not be the same.
Have the student say and clap the whole poem in rhythm.
If there is still time, move to the piano and compose a song. The notes can be any note in C major (all the white keys). The rhythm should be the rhythm they wrote down.
To make it easier, you can put in all the bar lines and time signature first, and do only one measure at a time.
To make it harder, don’t use the natural speaking rhythm. Syncopation or other unexpected rhythms usually go over well.
To make it longer, have the student change the rhythm after having written down yours.
To review the rhythms again afterwards, use percussion instruments to play it.
In the final week before Christmas, we were playing around with lead sheets and accompaniment styles. Jingle Bells is a great one to use because the kids all know it, and the right hand never goes out of a standard 5-finger pattern. Songs like that are rare.
When I planned this, I was worried it would be hard and frustrating for some of my kids, so I had planned a lot of Christmas jokes to use as interludes to break the tension. I needn’t have worried. They all enjoyed it, and I didn’t end up using any of the jokes at all.
For younger kids, you could lay the cards out on the floor and use dice and a Christmas ornament to select a card.
How to Play:
The student starts by sight reading just the right hand of the melody.
Beginners could do just the first line, or they could learn it by rote instead of reading.
Introduce or review the concept of a lead sheet.
Reinforce the concept by playing Jingle Bells with the Root Note Accompaniment. That card has a carrot on my cards.
Depending on the student, they could either play both hands or just the left hand.
Once they’ve got the idea, start drawing cards (or rolling dice) and play Jingle Bells as many times and in as many ways as you have time for.
The notes on the bottom of each card are there as a reminder only. The student should play by understanding the pattern, not by reading.
The accompaniment styles vary widely in difficulty. For each card, make a quick evaluation about whether this student should play right hand, left hand, or both. As the teacher, you play whichever hand the student is not using. Many of the styles can be made easier by using both hands to play it.
At the end, spread out all the cards the student has used and ask their opinion on which style of Jingle Bells they liked best. They liked being able to give their own musical review.