A Piece a Week: “Initial Grade”

Sheet Music Review

Regular readers will know that I am quite a fan of Paul Harris’s Piece a Week series from Faber Music, having found that using these books within my own teaching practice has helped many of my students significantly improve in their music literacy and ability to learn independently using notation.

Harris has just added a new book to the series, A Piece A Week: Initial Grade, which merits a separate review to the rest of the series for a variety of reasons which I will come to presently.

My first reaction to hearing about this book was admittedly mixed, on the one hand delighted that this wonderful resource has been extended to accommodate the needs of early elementary players, but the other hand stifling a weary sigh that in a year which has seen exam boards straining to dominate the music education agenda, yet more grade material has appeared for review.

But, extraordinary fellow that he is, Harris has an unnerving and seemingly inexhaustible knack for pleasantly surprising me, indeed, hugely exceeding my expectations.

And I’m happy to report that he’s done it again…

Continue reading A Piece a Week: “Initial Grade”

Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

Sheet Music Review

Paul Harris’s series of A Piece a Week books have been appearing at regular intervals over the last few years. Faber Music have just released the Grade 6 book, so let’s consider the series as a whole…

I’ll start with a quick reminder that while the books appear in the best-selling Improve Your Sight Reading series, they are not sight reading practice books per se. Rather they aim to support the broader development of music literacy.

In this review I will first explain the concept behind A Piece a Week, give an overview of the actual material included in the books, and explain how they develop to offer superb material across the range of playing levels from UK Grade 1 to the new Grade 6 book.

Continue reading Paul Harris: A Piece A Week

Tips for Playing at Sight

Tea Room Tips  from the  Pianodao Tea Room

Announcing our latest discussion event for Pianodao Members, I asked the following questions about sight reading:

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to play at sight? 
  • What approaches have helped you to improve? 
  • Do you have advice that might help others develop their sight-reading fluency?

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion which followed, which offer a wealth advice both for piano players and teachers…

Continue reading Tips for Playing at Sight

More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Sheet Music Review

Back in 2008, ABRSM published a series of books called Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests. Although deserving an award for having the most utilitarian and uninspiring titles in my whole music collection, they have nonetheless rarely been out of action in the intervening years.

In short, they were an essential purchase for any piano teacher preparing students for ABRSM’s world-leading piano grade examinations, and have seen very active service over many years.

Since 2008, many others have brought out alternative products to help teachers and students prepare for the sight-reading element of ABRSM exams. Paul Harris’s ubiquitous and respected Improve Your Sight-Reading series has been updated more than once, and now includes audio tracks. Useful and innovative alternatives have also appeared from Alan Bullard, Samantha Coates, e-music maestro and several others.

Now ABRSM return with a new series bearing the slightly-less scary title More Piano Sight-Reading, a suite of eight new books, one to tie in with each of their grades.

A superficial look at the eight books suggests that these aren’t radically different from their predecessors (which, I should add, are still valid, as the syllabus itself remains unchanged). However, a more detailed look reveals several tweaks and changes to the format which, between them, make the new books a step-improvement on the older ones.

For this review, I will focus on five specific improvements which I think make this new series a superior alternative to the previous books.

Continue reading More Piano Sight-Reading from ABRSM

Samantha Coates in Conversation

Exclusive interview with best-selling author Samantha Coates

Sydney-based music teacher and author Samantha Coates dazzled at this year’s Music Education Expo event, with a presentation brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

It was a pleasure to catch up with her afterwards to talk about her publications. In a warm, wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the importance of literacy, music theory and sight-reading, as well as Samantha’s recently developed passion for rote teaching.

But first I wanted to know more about Samantha’s back story …

Continue reading Samantha Coates in Conversation

Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets

Sheet Music Review

In a recent review I praised Gayle Kowlachyk and E.L. Lancaster’s Piano Studies for Technical Development books, and I’m pleased to say that the duo are back with another set of interesting and highly useful books, Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets.

This new series collects 59 original compositions, mostly from the pedagogy literature of the mid-late Romantic Era, in three progressive books. As such, it offers an invaluable source-book for teachers everywhere.

Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets

Strong Foundations for Playing at Sight

Guest post by Liz Giannopoulos

Over the past few months I’ve undertaken the challenge to improve the sight-reading ability of my students and help the tutors in the Encore Music team to find new and creative ways to teach sight-reading.

As most of our students are children, this research – and this article – is child-centric but much can still be applied to older learners.

Continue reading Strong Foundations for Playing at Sight

Alison Mathews’ “Doodles”

Sheet Music Review

Alison Mathews’ excellent collection Treasure Trove has proved a big hit with my students who have been working through it, and I’m delighted that publishers Editions Musica Ferrum have now brought out another collection composed by her: Doodles.

It is very clear straight away that this publication explores very different terrain to Treasure Trove however.

So what is the concept here, and do I think it works?
Let’s find out…

Continue reading Alison Mathews’ “Doodles”

Improve your sight-reading!

Sheet Music Review

“When pupils can sight-read, not only do they do well in exams but (rather more importantly) it allows them to learn pieces more quickly, which frees up much of our teaching time, allowing us to concentrate on developing the musician. Ultimately, it gives them independence: they are able to learn music on their own – the greatest gift we can give.”

So says best-selling author Paul Harris in the introduction to Improve your sight-reading: Teacher’s Book – latest addition to his ever growing Improve Your Sight-Reading series, just published by Faber Music.

Written to work alongside the well-known, long-published Improve your sight-reading ‘pupil’ books, the Teacher’s Book mirrors the introduction of keys and concepts in those, as well as offering useful tips for teachers.

Most important of all, the Teacher’s Book includes dozens of new progressive practice tests for each of Grades 1-5, which can be used in lessons to complement the use of the pupil books for home practice.

As such, the book offers the potential to elevate what was already a great resource into a more complete sight-reading system which bridges both lesson and home use.

Let’s find out how well it succeeds in this aim…

Continue reading Improve your sight-reading!

Radical Resources for Sight-Reading

Sheet Music Reviews

One of the certainties of my professional life in music has been the frequency with which I am asked to sight-read.

This can include accompaniments at rehearsals, auditions, and even public concerts. More informally I often find myself sight-reading when pupils bring their own choices of pieces to learn. So I am very grateful to those teachers who, often in spite of my protests, ensured that sight-reading was a part of my musical learning.

In this review I will give an overview of two recent series of publications which aim to break the mould and make sight-reading more relevant and pleasurable than is often the case – innovative and exciting publications which I am sure readers will want to explore…

Continue reading Radical Resources for Sight-Reading

Rhythm Games (download)

A gift to Pianodao readers, this set of 37 full-sized cards are mostly in Common time, with a handful in Compound time.

They include easy note values, rests, dotted notes, ties and syncopation. A couple of blank cards are also included for you to copy and use for your own additions to the pack!

pdf-logo  Flash Cards (download PDF)

The set is far from comprehensive, and is based on cards I used when delivering group keyboard teaching in schools – so I hope that you enjoy it as it is, and feel free to develop something similar to fit your own needs!

Some Games

Here’s a few ideas of games you can play with students which will put these flash cards to creative use.

Although the main focus here is on pulse and rhythmic development, the activities integrate many other aspects of musical learning, including the development of aural memory, sight reading, music theory and writing, improvisation and composition.

You’re sure to think of many more similar activities and games, so these are just a taster:

Sound Before Symbol

This is an aurally based activity that helps students make connections between notation and music.

  1. For this game select four cards (with the same time signature) that include rhythms previously introduced.
  2. Lay out the cards and start clapping the rhythm of one card repeatedly (as a loop). If you have an electronic keyboard you could add a drum beat while clapping, or you could use any suitable music recording as a backing track (but this isn’t necessary).
  3. Ask the student to join in clapping the same rhythm.
  4. Finally ask the student to identify which card you are both clapping.
  5. Then repeat using a different card (or selection).
  6. This game can also be extended using two cards as a repeated loop – now the student has to identify which two cards of the four have been selected.

Clapping Game

This activity helps a student develop instant visual recall of rhythms when sight reading.

  1. For this game select four cards and fix them where they can all be seen (e.g. stick them to the board/wall, or stand them on the book rest or desk).
  2. Ask the student to clap the card that you are pointing to repeatedly on a loop.
  3. When you are ready, switch to a different card.
  4. Increase the speed at which you switch card.
  5. Then try the same thing with two pairs of cards (making two bar/measure rhythms).

Create a rhythm

This activity uses the rhythm cards as the basis of composing and writing. It is excellent as a music theory activity because it links notational understanding to sound.

  1. Having clapped a set of several cards, invite the student to arrange four cards in order to create a four-bar/measure rhythm phrase.
  2. Clap the phrase together, and discuss what aspects of the rhythm work best.
  3. Make changes and try again.
  4. Finish by writing out the four bar/measure rhythm and clapping it one more time, this time using the version the student has written out.

Compose a Tune

This can be an extension to “Create a Rhythm”.

  1. Take a four bar/measure rhythm and set the student a home assignment of writing a melody using the rhythm.
  2. Encourage the student to compose an answering phrase using similar rhythms.
  3. In the next lesson the student can provide their written notation and play their melody.
  4. Check that what the student plays matches what they have written, as differences here will point to any misunderstandings they have about the rhythmic notation.

Improvisation Game

This is a really simple way to encourage a beginner to start making up their own improvisations.

  1. Select one rhythm card and ask the student to play the rhythm using one note, then two notes, and then three different ones.
  2. Expand the note pattern, using the same rhythm, to four bars/measures.
  3. Add a second card, and ask the pupil to include both rhythms in their improvisation.
  4. Expand this to 8 bars/measures.
  5. Continue adding more cards and extending the length of the improvisation according to the student’s ability and enthusiasm.

Detective Game

To finish off, an activity that links all the others back to the music that the student is actually learning.

  1. Take the cards used in previous activities, and pick the most difficult or newest rhythm introduced.
  2. Ask the pupil to find where that rhythm appears in a piece they are currently learning.
  3. Clap the rhythm within the context of the musical phrase in which it appears.
  4. Finally, play that phrase in isolation before going on to rehearse the full piece.

Good luck!

There are so many variations on these ideas, as well as many great alternative games and activities which work well with individuals, groups and classes.

So these are just offered as an inspiration to get you started, and I hope you have fun making up your own ways of using the cards to foster musical learning!


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