Here is a great improv to do for St. Patrick’s Day, but Irish music is great at any time of year, so there’s no need to limit it to March! Many of my early students have never played in 6/8 time, so this is a great opportunity to talk about time signatures.
How to Use:
- Demonstrate the pattern.
- Teach it by rote. Repeat until the student is confident.
- Have the student play the pattern while you make up a melody above it using the notes of the A minor scale.
- Switch parts.
- Change the key signature. Any minor scale will work. But you could also try it in major. Does it still sound Irish?
- Add grace notes to the melody. Irish music is big on grace notes, which many students have never played. They can even use notes outside of the scale (black notes) and quickly slide off them onto the scale notes.
- Accelerando. Some Irish music starts slow/moderately but at the end gets faster and faster for a dramatic finish. If you do this, add a crescendo as well.
- Vary the pattern. The pattern doesn’t have to be static. As written the four notes in each measure jump from the lower octave up to the higher octave and then from the higher octave down to the lower octave. You could try it with the same rhythm but jump from low to high and then low to high again. You could also change the quarter notes into to two eighth notes.
- Instead of making up the melody, try it with a lead sheet.
Every St Patrick’s Day, I play the Lucky Penny game with my students. This is not my original idea, and you can find the original brief instructions at Sing a New Song. It is a very simple game to review notes on the staff. I particularly like it because it isn’t just a drill of finding the note name. They also have to connect it through to the correct note on the piano. I always have some students who are great at naming the note, but still have no clue which octave they ought to be playing it in. This game helps.
What You Need:
- Flashcards with the notes you want to review
- As many pennies as you have flashcards. One (or more) should be marked on one side in some way as the lucky one.
- I use Euro pennies. My American students are always delighted by how small they are and the fact that they really are Irish pennies. Of course, if you don’t have a source for Euro pennies, any other small coin works just fine.
- My lucky penny has a sticker of a four leaf clover.
How to Play:
- Since I am not the originator of the game, I will just direct you to Sing a New Song to get the instructions on how to play.
- My modifications are as follows:
- I only have one lucky penny, not 2-5. If they have to go through two full octaves to find the penny, I don’t consider that a bad thing. It’s just more practice.
- I don’t give out candy, since I try to keep that at an absolute minimum. If they aren’t expecting candy, students are still interested in seeing how lucky they are (i.e., how quickly they find the lucky penny).
- To make it easier or shorter, limit the number of notes you ask.
- To make it harder, don’t have them remove the penny on the note on the staff. Instead pick an interval and require them to remove the penny a third above or a fourth below the note on the staff. You can then ask them to name whether that interval is major, minor, diminished, etc.
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!