Recomended Learning Aids and Materials

General Learning Aids

Music Magnetic Board


For those who can read music, I would recommend that you get this to help your child in learning. This is because a magnetic board is much more flexible than using notecards – there is no need to shuffle or search for the correct card; just move the note up or down on the stave, and students can learn intervals more effectively using this board. The magnetic board shown above is available at MUSIC THEME, excelsior shopping centre #B1-04/5/6. Alternatively, another version of the magnetic board is available for students enrolled in the music course in Yamaha Music School.

Music Flashcards (Hal Leonard)


These cards are very useful in learning note-reading, music terms and rhythm. Available at most major music stores (e.g. Yamaha Music School)

From Top Left:

  • Front of note-reading card
  • Back of note-reading card, showing letter name and position on keys
  • Back of interval-reading card

From Bottom Left:

  • Signs – Treble / Bass Clef, note/rest values, time signatures
  • Simple performance directions
  • Rhythm cards

Music Flashcards (Alfred’s)


There is actually not much difference between this and Hal Leonard flashcards, only that for the note-reading cards, only one clef/stave is shown instead of both staves. Available at most major music stores (e.g. Yamaha Music School)

Bastien Interval Cards


An alternative to using the magnetic board to learn intervals, with answers shown at the back. This is available at Music Essentials, #02-70 Concorde Hotel & Shopping Mall.


by Josephine Koh & Florence Koh


This is a fun way to learn note values and their value relative to each other. Available at most major music stores (e.g. Yamaha Music School)

Music Terms Cards

by Brio Music Press


This set of cards provides an interesting way to learn music terms. It comes in two sets – set 1 consists of terms mostly for grades 1-2 and set 2 consists of terms for grade 3-5. The cartoons shown on the cards helps students to remember the terms easily. All definitions come in 3 languages – English, traditional and simplified Chinese, and Japanese. To test yourself, you can use to TV card (bottom right) to cover up the meaning and to guess using the cartoon shown. Unfortunately, these cards are only available for sale in Hong Kong, at Tom Lee Music. It is, however, available for loan at my studio.

Learning Materials for Supporting Tests

Major & Minor Scale Picture Workbook

by Glenna Battson


These workbooks provide an interesting and fun way for students to learn and remember the structure of each scale using by cartoons to represent each scale. Students follow a worksheet format designed to help them discover, then remember, scale notes and fingering. Click on each thumbnail above to see the contents of the book. This is available at Music Essentials, #02-70 Concorde Hotel & Shopping Mall.

Scales Plus

by Brio Music Press


Scales Plus offers an innovative way in scales learning. It makes good use of the strong visual and aural memory of learners to help them learn fast and effectively. Unfortunately, these books are also only available for sale in Hong Kong, at Tom Lee Music. It is, however, available for loan at my studio. To view the content of this book, click on the thumbnail above. Each book consists of:

  • A visual keyboard shows the exact fingering positions to reveal the corresponding notes as they play.
  • full sets of fingering facilitate a prompt recital of scales with ease and efficiency.
  • Smart Colour Scheme is designated on sets of fingering in each scale and on the visual keyboard.
  • Complete scales are printed for elementary grades to assist learners to familiarize each note, especially those far from middle C
  • High readability allow learners in elementary grades to focus on the particular scale by arranging two scales at most on one page.

Essential Elements & Exercises for Aural Tests (Grade 5-8)

by Emeritus Professor Edward Ho

Prof Ho's 3E Series Brochure

Very often, teachers do not have enough time during lesson to prepare students adequately for Aural tests, especially for higher grades (test C/D) where aural exercises can be rather time-consuming. Furthermore, the student is unable to practice by themselves without the teacher as the teacher needs to play the exercises for them to hear. With these supplementary exercises for aural, students are able to practice aural test by themselves and check with the answers provided. With more than 40 musical excerpts for test C/D, these books would provide the student with more than adequate practice in aural.


Silent Night, Horrible Night

This is an article taken from a December issue of a large city newspaper years ago. I hope that this will correct any misconceptions about learning the piano and highlight to you the importance of practice, parental involvement, having a good teacher and a good piano to practice on, and the importance of taking your piano learning seriously.

Silent Night, Horrible Night
by Richard Chronister
My mother, who has celebrated 78 birthday and 77 Christmases, has received, in her lifetime, hundreds of presents. She says that, for sheer surprise value, none has topped the one I gave her for Christmas when I was 8.
It all started when my third-grade teacher asked how many children would be interested in taking private piano lessons. I raised my hand. We didn’t have a piano, but that didn’t discourage me. I was a compulsive hand raiser.
Sure enough, it all worked out. Arrangements were made for me to practice in the music room at school on my lunch hour, and my mother said she could manage the 50 cents a week for lessons.
That’s how I met my teacher. She was about 80, the perfect age for a piano teacher – too old to teach class, but not quite old enough to retire. Her energy was minimal, but she tried to remedy that by taking a nap every few minutes. Also, I think she was deaf.
During the next few months, I did learn:
1) The location of middle C, give or take a key or two.
2) That “in the spaces you will find face(s).”
3) That “on the line(s) every good boy does fine.”
Every day I went to the music room after lunch and locked the door. From time to time, my friends would knock softly and I would let them in. We spent the hour whispering and laughing and took turns hitting keys on the piano.
I moved ahead in my music book in spite of the fact that I could not play any of the songs. Most of the time, my teacher dozed through my lessons. I usually had to wake her when my half-hour was over so I could give her the 50-cent piece I carried to school each Wednesday.
We could have gone on this way forever – if it had not been for the recital! My teacher told me early in December that there would be a little recital for the motherrs on December 19. In honor of the season, I was to play “Silent Night.”
“Silent Night” was a song I loved, but even by ignoring the notes and trying to follow the numbers, I couldn’t play anything that faintly resembled it. I tried to tell my teacher of the predicament, but she patted my head and mumbled something about practice making perfect. i wanted to cry.
When I carried home my mother’s invitation to the recital, I tried to tell her how bad things were, but she was busy making divinity and she didn’t have time to talk – or even to listen.
I tried to tell my father. I said I was going to be in a recital… and that’s as far as I got. I couldn’t tell him the rest. He said, “That’s nice, honey,” or something like that. There was no one else to tell.
And then it came to me! I would pray for a miracle. I prayed morning and night and sometimes noon. I prayed that either I would learn to play “Silent Night” or that I would die. All to no avail.
The day of the recital came, as such days must. When it was my turn, I walked out on stage in my new red dress, curtsied to the assembled mothers, adjusted my Shirley Temple hair-bow, and sat down at the piano. I touched a key here and there. Occasionally, I touched two keys at one time. No tune emerged.
I was careful not to look at my mother. I did glace at my teacher. She was smiling in her sleep. Aftter whatI considered a decent length of time, I rose from the piano bench, walked to the center of the stage, curtsied to the group, and walked off. The audience seem dazed, but a few of them applauded.
We rode home in silence. Some of the neighbors’ children were riding with us. I went straight to my room to await developments. I was a wicked little girl, I knew.
After a while my mother came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “I don’t have much time,” she said. “There are only so many days until Christmas, and I think the baby is getting the chicken pox. I’ll get right to the point.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
“I don’t believe you were cut out to be a musician,” she said. “We will discontinue your music lessons.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
She stood up and walked toward the door. Then she turned and looked at me intently.
“You were very brave today,” she said, “but it was too late.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
She came back and held me while I cried.
Who Failed?
To learn to read and play any instrument acceptably at the elementary or even the intermediate level does not depend on talent. It depends on a teacher who knows how to teach and a parent who knows how to support that teacher and child. This newspaper article has a few words that I changed to protect the guilty. The words I changed indicated that this teacher had a university education, so we cannot lay this failure at the feet of the little old lady who can play a little and is perpetrating fraud on unsuspecting parents. No, this teacher had been through our college system, probably, and a one-or-two semester course in piano pedagogy, and is, nevertheless, perpetrating fraud on unsuspecting parents. This article is a shopping list of what is causing failure in music education today.

“We didn’t have a piano”
You might suppose we could assume that every piano teacher knows that a child must have a piano to practice on, that this piano should be in the child’s home, preferable away from the living room and the television. Assumptions aside, surely having no piano was partly to blame for this child’s failure; and the teacher must share the blame, since the teacher accepted the child without a piano.

“Arrangements were made to practice in the music room at school on my lunch hour”
Music lessons given and practice done at odd times and in odd places have been an enemy of the piano teacher since time began, I suppose. Avoiding this may be close to impossible, but this child’s failure is certainly partly due to this barrier to efficient work.

“Fifty cents a week for lessons.”
Of course, the lessons were not worth 50 cents! But if that mother had been paying what thirty minutes of good teaching is worth – and what a professional teacher charges for thirty minutes of time – that parent would probably have seen to it that something was received for payment made. Fees charges for lessons are indicative of the self-image and proficiency of a piano teacher. And in this article, this teacher has definitely delivered what was worth of 50 cents of a lesson!

“Too old to teach in class, but not quite old enough to retire.”
It is unfortunate that piano teaching is regarded by some as not really a profession, especially if you already have a college degree. It is just something done on the side while you are waiting to do something else – while studying in college, to get married, to go to graduate school, or to die.

“Her energy was minimal. At times she dozed off. I think she was deaf”
It is important that a student’s image of his/her piano teacher is a positive (and perferably an inspiring) one. Unfortunately, in this case, the piano teacher do not represent music. It only represents a piano teacher’s music, which is a breed unto itself, not to be heard anywhere else in the child’s real world.

“I learned the location of middle C; ‘in the spaces you will find face’; and so on.”
Finding middle C, spelling “face,” maligning “every good boy,” and cutting up pies into quarter notes are cliches of the piano teaching profession. Also included is wasting time over unneccary and unfruitful exercises. Much of piano teaching is still in the dark ages. This was proven a few years ago when one of the major publishers came out with a brand new, but unchanged, edition of the W.S.B. Mathews course which first appeared in the 19th century. This is not a reflection on the publisher. He would not have re-issued it if there had been no demand. The failure of piano students has something to do with the teaching material the teacher chooses to use.

“I moved ahead in my music book in spite of the fact that I could not play any of the songs.”
Unfortunately there are many teachers who teach by just teaching ‘songs’ and ‘moving ahead’ even when the student could not play the song well or could not even play it, blaming lack of practice as a reason that they are struggling with the piece, when the fact is that they have failed to give the student a solid foundation to cope with pieces that get more and more difficult. Similarly there are students who simply assumes that they can learn the instrument by just ‘attending’ the lesson and ‘practicing’ during the lesson, only to forget everything completely by the next lesson and make the teacher go through exactly the same thing all over again the next lesson, and the next lesson.

“…to give her the 50-cent piece I carried to school each Wednesday.”
Piano lesson are training in a physical skill. A physical skill is developed by slowly acquired tiny habits which acculmulate and finally burst into seemingly natural activity. Only a course of study carefully planned to make this apparent miracle happen will finally result in success for most students. Carrying the lsson fee to lessons each week means the teacher is selling lessons like loaves of bread. There is no long-term plan or goal. The piano teacher who says,”This is what we will accomplish this term, and this is the cost of the term,’ is saying to the parent, “I know what I am doing.” This inspires confidence in the teacher; it commits the parents; it prepares the child for the teacher’s attitude toward lessons. Part of the failure of this child must be attributed to the fact that there was no plan for accomplishment and no commitment on anybody’s part to anything.

“We could have gone on this way forever if it had not been for the recital.”
Remember, this was written by someone looking back. At the time, the child probably thought it had gone on forever already. And, sometimes, it does go on forever. A recital, however, can be a major atriculation which causes awareness of reality, as it did in this case. One could think of making a case for poor teaching by saying that teachers put too much emphasis on recital preparation , spending too much time preparing students to play flawlessly on recitals. But is that really the case? Piano recitals are, fairly regularly, deadly things – deadly for the child, the parents – but never, it seems, deadly enough for the teacher. Too often, we explain poor recital performances by our unshakable belief that only the talented can be assured of successfully rendering “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Over the Fence Is Out,” or “Oscar the Octopus.” No, we cannot blame the failure to read on rote-prepared and beautiful recital performances. But we can explain some of the public’s attitude toward piano teachers by looking closely at the principal showcase of piano teachers, the recital.

“I ignored the notes and followed the finger numbers.”
There is surely no need to comment on that.

“The teacher patted my head and mumbled something about practice making perfect.”
It is the teacher’s job to teach the student how to find his way out of any predicament in which he finds himself. But here there are two problems. First, the teacher must be able to recognize the exact nature of the predicament; and second, the teacher must know the way out.

“I tried to tell my mother; I tried to tell my father.”
Once, one of my piano classes included the daughter of a colleague on the music faculty. At the usual parent meeting a few weeks after the lessons began, he listened to what I had to say, mainly about what I planned to do with the students, how I planned to do it, and what I expected in home practice. He raised his hand suddenly and said, “Do you mean Jeannie is supposed to practice at home?” I was new at that college, and he told me he thought I had brought an amazing new method which required no home practice. That experience is living proof that we can never assume anything so far as parents are concerned. The failure of the child in our story had as much to do with the parents’ failure of the child in our story had as it had to do with the teacher. However, it is the teacher’s responsibility to communicate clearly to the parents their part in successful piano study, and to accept nothing less.

“And then it came to me; I would pray for a miracle.”
With many piano students, that is about their only hope if teachers persist in believing that failures can be explained by such nonsense as, “Well, Johnny just doesn’t have natural rhythm,” or “Some students can sight read and some can’t,” or “If Johnny only had an ear for music.” It seems that we blame both our failures and our successes on supernatural causes. One of the first things we have to do is to take the magic and the mystery out of music study – not out of music. Music is a glorious language, which everyone can read and speak if only we will learn how to create an environment in which the learning can take place naturally.
Developing bravery is not a goal of music study.
The child in this story went home from the recital in dejection and was told that lesson would be discontinued because she struck out. She wasn’t cut out to be a musician. As though being a musician were the only valid goal for learning music. But then a really true statement was made by the mother. Unfortunately, as it often the case with true statements, it was said for the wrong reason. The mother said, “You were very brave today.” How true! But then she ruined it. She added, “But it was too late.”
Yes, it was too late.
I am not sure what she meant, but I know what it means to me. It was too late for that mother. It was too late for that teacher. It was too late for either or both of them to undo the monumental harm done to that 8-year old child who easily could have had the same ability – and the same talent – as 90% of college piano majors when they were 8 years old. It was too late for that child to find the pleasure that musical literacy brings to all those lucky enough to get through those early years in spite of their teachers and parents. Too late for that child to fully explore one of her native tongues.

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Learn to Read Music

Learn to Read Music
(Source Unknown)

All musicians, excepting blind ones, need to learn to read music if they are to make the most of their ability. The entire history of Western music is available to those who have mastered this skill. Yet for so many, reading music remains the single biggest obstacle to learning music.
It certainly was for me. I even had an incompetent piano teacher (famously, I think) fire me because I couldn’t learn to read music. (I’m at long last more competent at sight reading than she was at recognizing musical talent, to say the least.) She literally told my mother, “Take your money every week and throw it in the garbage! Albert will never be able to play the piano!” Much as I’d like to, I won’t name names, although I presume she is no longer with us (or at least, one hopes, has no internet access).
What Mrs. [expletive deleted — her name really is an expletive!] failed, astonishingly, to notice is that music is sound. Nowadays, far too much emphasis is in fact placed on simply learning to read music, while neglecting this simple fact, and training the ear ought therefore to be favored above training the eye. I don’t have statistics on the percentage of exasperated piano students whose flashbacks to stereotypical “mean old bat” piano teachers smacking their wrists with a ruler have cost them years of psychotherapy, though I can assure my readers that learning to read music need not be this painful.
Reading music should be thought of much like training a muscle. No one enters a gym with an Olympian physique for the first time. The rest of us may feel intimidated by the pros, but two things are important. First, they had to work very, very hard to attain that level of fitness. Secondly, and most importantly, they’re still working out. To a certain extent, learning to read music is like learning to ride a bicycle. However, the human mind and body function according to a strict use-it-or-lose-it principle, and that ought to compel us to practice…
That said by way of introduction, here are some practical, general tips that will help you learn to read music with greater ease. (Be sure to subscribe to this site, as specific tips and exercises are added regularly.)

Practice regularly
This should be so self-evident that I needn’t mention it, yet it continues to amaze me how many music students don’t make time for regular practice and then wonder why they’re not improving quickly. (Yes, people actually pay me to tell them to practice.) Good practice habits are absolutely essential if you wish to learn to read music or undertake any serious musical activity. In learning to read music, above all this means practicing regularly. Clearly, regular practice will bring results far more quickly than will intermittent work. Make a commitment to practice sight reading at least five days a week. It’s useful to start practice sessions with reading music. This will quickly grow into a habit. As progress is cumulative only with regular work, 10 minutes a day is all most music students need to learn to read music proficiently. By working consistently, with proper practice habits, you’ll astonish yourself with how fast your music reading skills will improve. Improvements on improvements will accelerate your progress. It’s like getting compound interest on your sight reading skills!

Practice with a clear mind
Like all music skills, it is perfectly normal to be able to sight read well one day and less well the next. The mind must be receptive, and a tired mind can no more learn to read music than it can do any other activity that demands concentrated effort. Foreign language learners are well aware of this phenomenon. Some days you might be fluent and on others you can barely get the words out and you end up making a fool of yourself. Those are the days you get to tell your friends about (I certainly have my share of embarrassing stories), but in music it simply doesn’t work this way. Never practice on fatigue.

Focus first on rhythm
Music of any complexity can always be broken into its constituent components. In reading music, this means first and foremost that rhythm must predominate. A valuable warm-up exercise to sight reading is simply to tap the rhythm while counting out loud. (It’s best for this exercise not to be done with the metronome!) The simplest way to do this is with a single line, either melodic or accompanimental. If you’re working with polyphonic music, or if the accompaniment has a different rhythm from the melody, it’s incredibly valuable to tap one voice in each hand while counting aloud. Only once you’re confident with the rhythm should you proceed to actually reading the pitches. Indeed, if you can’t accurately tap the rhythm while counting evenly, it’s impossible to expect to be able to read the music at sight! It is surprising how many music students continue to struggle with learning to read music but who never bother to first learn to tap the rhythm accurately. Much of the battle can be won by that alone.

Use appropriate material
The right material is essential if you wish to learn to read music and to sustain that effort over a long enough period to become proficient. Imagine a personal trainer forcing a weak body to push the crushing weights that professional athletes lift! While this analogy might sound extreme, in my experience this is certainly part of the reason so many music students struggle with reading music — they see a tall mountain and are afraid to take the first step. Since every student will be at a different stage of development it will be impossible to make specific recommendations here (although exercises targeted to your specific level — from rank beginner to experienced professionals — are in the works at!). There is no need to limit yourself to music stricly for your instrument. Song accompaniments can make for useful sight reading material, for instance.
It should be axiomatic that every aspiring music student must find the best teacher possible. Let your teacher know you’ve set a goal to learn to read music competently and ask him or her for appropriate material regularly. Work with your teacher to select the proper material as mentioned above, find a volume of music at or just beyond your level, and set a goal to read through the entire book. Use a bookmark to mark your progress. Read a little each day until you’ve finished, then select the next volume.

Separate reading material from repertoire
Avoid at all costs the very bad habit of continually sight reading pieces you’re learning! Truly sight reading music can only be done once per piece, since the brain will already begin absorbing the musical information. A key distinction is that reading music favors rhythm even at the expense of some wrong notes, while actually learning a piece must be absolutely precise in all aspects. Therefore, repertoire pieces may be sight read once, and fresh material must always be sought out for sight reading work.

Develop proprioception
(Keep your eyes on the page!)
When learning to read music it is imperative to keep your eyes on the page, not on your fingers or instrument. This is one of the most difficult tasks for many students, but it is the major hurdle to be overcome. The technical term for the essential skill required in sight reading is called proprioception. Proprioception is a sort of “sixth sense,” an awareness of the body in space. Athletes and dancers, for instance, have highly developed proprioception, and musicians need to develop this skill as well. There’s really only one way to develop proprioception in learning to read music, and that is to keep your eyes focused on the music rather than your hands.
On the piano, there is a simple exercise you can do that will help you to develop this “sixth sense.” The piano keyboard has two groups of black keys per octave, one consisting of two black keys and the other three. By orienting yourself by means of the black keys it’s possible to find any key relatively quickly. Try closing your eyes and challenging yourself to find all the D-flats, then all the E-flats, working your way through all the black keys. Then practice finding the white keys blindly by first feeling their relation to the black keys. This, by the way, is how blind pianists are able to play.

Know harmony
If you’re versed in harmony and know all your scales and chords, learning to read music can become relatively easy. Once you can immediately recognize all the key signatures and know all the notes within each scale, you’ll be able to feel your way within a given key. Sight reading music well demands the integration of many musical faculties, including full knowledge of the common harmonies and all scales. This is why genuinely musical material, rather than random notes as some misguided electronic methods use, is essential for learning to read music. Good musicians are able to recognize harmonic and rhythmic patterns and to anticipate what comes next. In this sense, reading music is exactly like reading language — a context is necessary.

Read the following paragraph, for instance:
“I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?”

Since we know our own language so well and because we have a context (i.e., the words form whole sentences and the sentences make sense), we’re able to understand the paragraph. Learning to read music works exactly the same way: We learn to recognize patterns and make inferences based on subconscious expectations.
Since we know our own language so well and because we have a context (i.e., the words form whole sentences and the sentences make sense), we’re able to understand the paragraph. Learning to read music works exactly the same way: We learn to recognize patterns and make inferences based on subconscious expectations.
Yet imagine how difficult it would be to have to read a series of nonsense syllables! Instead, we learn to read music as well as language by practicing with patterns of notes and words that we come to know. Sight reading methods that use random notes are therefore to be ignored for any but the most superficial tasks.

Read by intervals, not note names
Reading music is simultaneously absolute and relative. That means that the brain recognizes not only the absolute note names for each clef by memorizing them, it also should recognize the intervallic relations between notes. To aid in reading music, each clef has two notes that serve as references for the eye. By convention, C is common to all clefs. The treble clef is also called the G clef because the spiraled symbol is centered on the G above middle C. Therefore, C and G are the two reference notes for the treble clef:

The bass clef is also called the F clef because its two dots are centered on the F below middle C. Thus, C and F are the reference notes for the bass clef:

Like the treble clef, the C clefs (soprano, mezzosoprano, alto, tenor and baritone) also use C and G as their reference notes. Most piano students have never encountered the C clefs, and essentially only alto and tenor clefs are used nowadays for a handful of instruments, including viola, trombone and bassoon. Here is the alto clef:

It is a very good idea to familiarize yourself with all clefs no matter which instrument you play. The goal is not to learn the absolute note names for each clef, which will only confuse you, but simply to be able to find any note in relation to its closest reference note. Thus, for instance, if you understand that the C clef symbol is centered on middle C, you’ll immediately know that the note directly above it is D, no matter which of the five C clefs you are learning to read.

Practice with others
If you have the opportunity to work with other music students, by all means take advantage of it. If you don’t yet have this opportunity, make it. Reading through music with others is one of the best ways to learn to read music, since you’ll be forced to stay in rhythm. I often play duets with my students to help them acquire this skill. You can play with any combination of instruments and accompany singers. The more variety, the better.
Work according to these suggestions and you’ll be surprised at how rapidly you progress! Best wishes in learning to read music and in all your musical work.
Watch this video on sight reading

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Common Misconceptions About Learning Piano

From my experience in teaching, I have come across many people with certain misconceptions about piano playing and learning, thus I feel that there is a need to clarify all these misconceptions. While some people may find this hilarious, some will be shocked to know the truth behind these misconceptions.

About Standard

Grade 1 exam pieces are ‘nothing’; they are as easy as ‘Mary had a little lamb’!
While grade 1 exam pieces may be ‘nothing’ to an adult or a fast learner, it may be a very challenging task for a young child, especially when the requirements of the exam is not only to play out the notes, but to play them fluently with good articulation, with loud and soft, with expression and up to the required speed. And definitely, grade 1 pieces are not as easy as ‘Mary had a little lamb’, or else the exam board would not come out with such a grade (and there is even pre-grade 1!) Click on the videos below to view grade 1 exam pieces. Usually a child takes about a few months (for fast learners) to a year (for slow learners) to master grade 1 exam pieces.

Early Beginner Standard
(note: if your child learns to play pieces of this standard by rote, it is considered pre-beginner standard)

Late Beginner Standard

Grade 1 Standard

Grade 1 Exam piece

Richard Clayderman pieces are grade 8 pieces
Pieces that sound difficult or impressive does not mean that they are of grade 8 standard, especially when they are a pop piece. Richard Clayderman pieces are only of around grade 5 standard, although some of the fill-ins or figurations might sound very impressive, they are just constructed from broken chords (which are taught since grade 1). A Mozart or Beethoven sonata (first movement) or a Chopin nocturne would be of around grade 8 standard.

I can play grade 8 pieces. Therefore my playing standard is grade 8 and I can pass the grade 8 exam.
You can play grade 8 pieces with only a grade 5 standard, or with a diploma standard. It is not difficult to learn just the notes for a piece, but to play up to the standard required, you need the technique and the musical maturity required of that standard. Thus, playing grade 8 pieces doesn’t mean that your standard is grade 8, and even if you can play grade 8 pieces up to the standard required, that does not mean that you can pass the exam as there are still supporting tests included in graded exams. There are many people who can play grade 8 pieces but can only play sight reading up to grade 5 standard; however, the standard of your sight reading often tells what grade you are really at because it determines how fast you can learn a new piece with the same amount of practice.

I think I’ll do well in the exam. I only played 5 wrong notes in this piece.
Accuracy and fluency is of utmost importance in music, because music is all about perfection and the most basic thing that you should do in playing a piece of music is to play it accurately, and that is even before you put in dynamics, expression, etc. It is surprising that some people don’t know what is the meaning of fluency – to play a piece in perfect timing, from one bar to another without stopping. It is shown that the average number of wrong notes played by a distinction candidate is about one in 150. In carefully prepared examination work, candidates often play fewer than five wrong notes in every thousand. And this is why most teachers take a longer time to teach exam pieces because this is the standard expected.

I think I’ll get full marks for the exam. I never played any wrong notes.
Again, I have to reiterate that playing the piano is not just about playing notes. In fact, that is only the most basic thing expected in a well prepared piece. Each exam piece is marked to a total of 30 marks, with 20 marks as the passing mark. Examiners usually starts with 20 marks before the candidate starts playing, everytime the candidate plays with dynamics and expression, marks are added, and everytime he makes a mistake (wrong notes or rhythm, etc.) marks are deducted. Therefore a piece without any wrong notes but without dynamics and expression will at most get you the minimum passing mark.

When I reach grade 8, I will be a master of the piano.
Unfortunately, there are people who have a grade 8 cert but cannot sight-read a grade 1 piece, or to play a simple single-line melody by ear, or just to sing in tune. A total musician is one who not only can play music, but also read music, write music, create music, sing in tune and have a good inner ear. This is what I aim to teach all my students, not just to play songs or to pass exams. And to all professional musicians, grade 8 is only a basic foundations and a stepping stone to higher qualifications and standards.

About Progress

After a few piano lessons, I would be able to play out any score that is put in front of me.
Sight reading is something that most students take years and years to master. While some people might be naturally good at sight reading because of good habits of looking at the score while playing and also lots of practice, there are people who are able to play grade 8 pieces but can’t even sight-read a grade 1 piece! Usually people who are bad at sight-reading learn pieces by hearing and memorizing. (I’m not saying that it is not good to learn by hearing, in fact those who have good ears and musical sense are often able to learn sight reading faster as they can anticipate the notes before they see or play it. But one bad habit of those who learn by hearing is that they often neglect the score.) Often people get this misconception from TV when they see a pianist being able to play anything that is put in front of him, but they failed to take into consideration that the reason why most musicians and teachers can sight-read very well is because they are doing that every day.

After a few piano lessons, I would be able to play Richard Clayderman pieces.

Piano playing is a skill that can only be developed over time. While some people might be able to play more difficult pieces after the first few lessons, the pieces are usually taught by rote with lots of practice. Usually they will not be able to play it very well because of insufficient technique and they are only just playing notes.
After attending lessons for 1 year or so, I would be able to take Grade 1 exams, or even Grade 2!
Note that I use the word ‘attend lessons’ instead of ‘learn piano’ because you can attend lessons without learning anything! There are many reasons why a child can attend lessons without much progress. If lessons are in a group, this may be because the child is not suitable for group lessons. For young children (or even for some older children) this may be because of insufficient parental support. Or it may just be because the student does not practice at all. (yes, there are people who think that they can progress by just attending lessons).

Level 3 of Book X is equivalent to grade 3 ABRSM/Trinity Syllabus. Level 3 of ABC music course by XYZ music school is equivalent to grade 3 ABRSM/Trinity Syllabus. Therefore my son will be able to take the grade 3 exam after he had completed level 3 of book x or level 3 of ABC music course.
Different books by different publishers or authors have different standards. Even if it is explicitly indicated on the book that it is of grade 3 standard, it might be easier or more difficult than grade 3. Thus, if a certain book is only indicated level 3 (not grade 3), it might be only of late beginner standard. (There are many beginner books that divide the grade into different stages so as to make it more progressive for the student). Same for foundations courses in music schools – level 3 usually means late beginner stage, but even if a child ‘graduates’ with level 3 from a music course, it does not mean that his playing standard is of a late beginner standard because different people learn with different pace, furthermore in a group course when everyone is taught with the same pace and progress is not monitored closely. (Please note that I’m not against such courses, but in fact feel that they provide a very good foundation to the child, only with lots of parental support and help and only when the child completes the whole course and not until a particular level).

My neighbour’s daughter took grade 2 after learning for 1 year; therefore my son should be able to take grade 2 because he has been learning for more than 1 year.
Again this is a misconception that many people have. Different people learn with different pace. This may be because of age – older beginners learn faster than young children; IQ – people with higher intelligence learn faster; parental support – this cannot be emphasized more; interest – people with more interest will practice more and progress faster; and especially for music learning, environment and early exposure to music – people from musical families, or children who are exposed to music from a young age (ideally 2 years or younger). (Please take note that exposure to music need not be in the form of lessons, it can be just listening to nursery rhymes or to the mother’s singing). And most importantly, the pace of learning depends on the amount of efficient practice you put in. From my experience, I have students who took grade 3 after learning for 1 year and also those who took grade 1 only after learning for 3-4 years.(Note that it is normal for young children to learn for 3-4 years before taking any exams)

My child must finish every song in the book to finish each grade. So, if there are 30 songs in the book, and if my child takes 2-3 weeks for each song, he can only finish the grade in more than one year.
Piano learning is not just about learning ‘songs’. It is more about ear training, note reading, training finger dexterity and technique, and understanding music theory. It is only after the internalization of all these skills that the child can externalize it by playing on the piano. That is why I call myself more of a music teacher than a piano teacher. And for young children I emphazise more on training these skills to build a strong foundation, not just learning ‘songs’.

I don’t understand why some teachers only teach the three exam pieces for the entire year.
This has to do with progress and the amount of practice that each student puts in. While there are students who manage to learn and polish up grade 8 pieces in months, there are those who cannot even do the same for grade 1 pieces in a year. Thus, most teachers usually start the exam pieces early so that the student will not give them a heart attack one month before the exam. For me, I try not to teach only exam pieces for the first five grades, and I usually only start exam pieces after I register the student for exam (about half a year earlier) for the first few grades. However, as the amount of time needed to learn and polish up exam pieces increases with each grade, but the amount of time available to practice usually decreases with every increase in child’s age, by the time the child reaches the last 2-3 grades, unless he/she is a very fast learner or is very hardworking, he/she will usually be concentrating on exam pieces for the entire year.

I don’t understand why I must learn other pieces instead of just the 3 exam pieces.
For the first few grades (grade 1-5), students must learn enough pieces and technical exercises so as to build a strong foundation – strong fingers and dexterity, muscle memory, musical awareness – so that they can cope better with the next grade. And learning exam pieces only is simply not sufficient enough to achieve this and students may end up struggling with the next grade and give up piano altogether.

Theory should progress at the same pace as Practical.
Ideally, this should be the case because what is covered in practical is covered in theory in about the same grade, but usually for most students, theory and practical progresses at different pace and it is perfectly okay to do so. For young students, unless they have high IQ, theory would progress at a much slower pace than practical. This is perfectly normal and parents should not worry about this and spend too much time to make sure that both progresses at the same pace. This is because as the child is grows older and is able to understand theory concepts better, his theory would be able to catch up with practical eventually. I personally have students who did poorly for theory when they were a child but got merits and distinctions for theory when they were a teenager.

It is necessary to attain grade 8 theory if I can reach the same grade for practical.
Most students stop at grade 5 theory as this is the minimum requirement for taking grade 6-8 practical exams. Entry requirement (for theory) for most tertiary music institutions (e.g. Lasalle, NAFA, MOE music teaching) is only grade 5 theory. This is because grade 6-8 theory is at a much higher level than grade 5 theory (and would be taught if you are enrolled in a music diploma course in such institutions). Most students who wish to continue with grade 6-8 theory only do so after they finish grade 8 practical, because grade 6-8 is very time consuming and there is simply not enough time to squeeze it into a 1 hour lesson, unless the student is very independent for their practical (i.e. can learn notes all by themselves without any help from teacher). For me, I only encourage students to pursue grade 6-8 theory if they have met these requirements:

  • They must at least have attained a distinction for Grade 5 theory.
  • They must have a very strong interest in theory. MEP/ O level music students would be an advantage.
  • For those who want to do grade 6-8 theory together with practical, they must be good in BOTH practical and theory and must be very independent for practical as most of the time would be spent on theory.
  • Student must be independent to do all assigned readings and memorizing by himself. (there is no time for me to spoon-feed)

I am an adult learner, so I am able to learn faster than most children.
The biggest problem in learning piano for adult learners is time constraint. It takes lots of practice and patience to learn a new instrument, but most adult students simply are not able to allocate enough time to practice because they are busy with school, work or other commitments. Furthermore, adult learners are usually more self-conscious and they try hard to avoid mistakes when playing by tensing up and this results in stiff fingers and a bad tone. Although they might be able to understand theory and instructions better then children, they might end up feeling frustrated with their practice because they expect themselves to learn a new section/technique as fast as they understand music theory. What most adult students need to do is to relax, because tensing the muscles to gear themselves to a task will only decrease control, not increase it. They must learn to learn from mistakes and not to tense up to avoid mistakes, so there should be room allowed for mistakes. And, of course, they must practice more. The advantage that adult students have over children is that they are more self-motivated. So, with lots of practice, patience and a lot of passion in music, it is not difficult for an adult to succeed in learning piano.

If I can finish my university module in 1 year, I should be able to ‘finish’ learning piano in 1 year.
Learning piano is about learning a skill, and skills need to be trained over time. Even though you might be able to finish learning theory and theory of the technique required to play piano, it is almost impossible to learn to play piano from scratch to grade 8 in 1 year (unless you practice 12 hours a day). Furthermore, there are people who have finished grade 8 but are still taking lessons because learning never stops.

About Practice

I will be able to play a new piece after I have practiced it five times
Unless you are a professional pianist, or unless the piece is way too easy for your standard, if you are still a learner you will not be able to play a piece well after practicing it five times. Good habits of practicing are not only to practice until you get it right, but to practice until you never get it wrong again. The number of times varies from person to person, some people can get it right after practicing for 20 times, some practiced hundreds of time and still could not get it right. Usually those with more developed skills, memory, and sight-reading, sense of harmony and with all things being equal, good practicing habits and strong mind power would require less practice.

How many times must I practice this? 20 times? 100 times? 1000 times?
Although practice is all about repetition, it is more important to practice efficiently than just blindly repeating the piece over and over again. Therefore, it is very important to listen carefully to your playing and check that you’ve played the correct notes, fingering, articulation, dynamics, etc, every time you practice, and to repeat and try and play the section correctly if you’ve got it wrong. And after you have got the section correct, you have to practice (reinforce) until you never get it wrong again. Then, you’ll be able to truly master a piece. This is not easy, but with patience and perseverance, you will be able to do it.

I have learned this piece for 2 years; I don’t understand why I can’t play as well as someone who has only learnt it for 2 months.
This, again, has to do with practice. Assuming similar skill level and (effective) practice habits for both players, if the one who has only learnt the piece for 2 months practices 2 hours a day, and the one who has learnt it for 2 years practices 30 minutes a week, the one who practiced for 2 months has actually practiced 120 hours altogether while the one who practiced for 2 years had only practiced 52 hours. Furthermore, the one who practiced for 2 months had much more reinforcement in what he learnt because he practiced every day.

I must practice for 2 hours a day to master my piece.
Again, it is not about how much time you spend practicing but how efficiently you practice. If you are using the wrong practice methods, it is possible to spend 2 hours a day practicing and still make your piece worse. Therefore it is important to listen to your teacher’s instructions carefully, check the score carefully and to be critical to your own playing. (And that’s why parental involvement is important for young children as they may not be able to do so). And instead of practicing for a fixed amount of time a day, try and set a goal (e.g. to play with correct fingering) for each practice session and to practice until you have accomplished your goal (be it 5mins or 1hr). By doing this, you would also avoid aimless repetition and you would enjoy your practice more as it is much more productive!

I don’t understand why I cannot play my exam piece as well as my teacher!
Similar to what I’ve said earlier about playing standard, you are playing your grade 1 pieces with a grade 1 standard, whereas your teacher is playing your grade 1 pieces with a grade 8 or diploma standard. Furthermore, your teacher might even be able to sight read your pieces and play it better than you!

I don’t understand why I have to follow the score exactly if it is just a technical exercise/piece.
Every technical exercise is written with the intention of improving a certain technique. Following what is written will allow you to fully develop that technique. Of course, if it is too difficult for you, your teacher will have to simplify it for you, but if it is something that you can achieve with practice, you should follow what is written rather than to look for an easy way out. Same for pieces as every difficult section in each piece is a technical challenge that you have to overcome with practice. Once you have overcome the difficult section, you will find it so much easier if you are faced with something similar next time.

I don’t understand why I have to follow the fingering exactly if I am able to play out the notes with my own fingering.
I used to think that my piano teacher was being fussy when he insisted that I follow the fingering indicated in the book, but after I had advanced on to higher grades and started teaching, I started to understand why. Although there can be alternate fingerings in the same piece to suit different hand sizes, using the correct fingering is of utmost importance in piano playing. Using the correct fingering enables you to navigate through the piece easily, play with the correct technique and articulation, thus allowing you to be able to learn and remember the piece in a shorter time and sound better. The basic rules of fingering is to choose a fingering that suits the natural hand shape, and with the least turns, stretches and changes in hand position in a passage, while taking into account the articulation of the piece. And the most important rule in fingering is to stick to the fingering you (or your teacher) has decided upon so as to train the muscle memory efficiently. Ignoring the fingering is one of the most serious practice flaws that students make and almost always leads to failure.

I don’t understand why my child is unable to practice when I told him to do so.
The younger the child is, the more reinforcement he/she would need to learn something successfully, but the younger the child is, the more he/she is unable to learn or practice independently. Therefore, parental involvement is vital to the success of the child’s learning. The role of the parent is not just to ‘tell’ the child to practice, but to practice with the child. That is why I strongly recommend parents to sit in to their child’s lesson so that they can observe how the teacher trains the child and to repeat the same thing with the child throughout the week.

Other Misconceptions

My child does not have any potential; therefore he is not suited for piano playing and he will not ‘make it’ / My child has a lot of talent in music. He will certainly be able to become a good pianist.
Recent research reveals that music aptitute, like all human characteristics, is normally distributed in the population. This means that any normal person has the potential to achieve in music. Therefore, I regard any child with the ‘potential’ to ‘make it’ (at least through the grades) if he has a good learning attitude, is willing to listen to the teacher’s instructions and disciplined and willing to put in effort to practice. On the other hand, students who are not willing to listen to the teacher’s instructions, who insist on playing their own way, who are not willing to practice, or who just have no interest in music, will certainly not be able to succeed even if they have a lot of talent. I’m sure you have heard of quotes such as ‘slow and steady wins the race’ and ‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. And it is true that there are people who are tone deaf but have obtained grade 8 in piano.

I am not musically inclined, so I am not able to help my child in his music learning
Parental involvement, especially if the child is a young beginner, is vital to the success of the child’s music learning. Because the young child only sees the teacher for only 45 minutes once a week for his lessons, but the parent is available every day to help him with his practice and learning. There are numerous studies in general education that concluded that parental involvement improves student achievement, and that parents are critical to children’s successes during their school years. Even if you know nuts about music, you can always follow up with the teacher every week to find out how can you help, or simply help to correct your child’s sitting posture and hand position and to encourage him to practice (you don’t need talent to be able to do that). For young beginners aged 3 to 6, it is always best to sit in on lessons and observe how the teacher trains the child so that you can help him the same way.

I will be able to play piano well because I have long and thin fingers. / I am not suited for piano playing because I have fat fingers that often end up playing two keys at the same time.
You would be surprised that many famous piano-hands are often thick and heavy with a large fist and short fingers. Examples of such pianists are D’Albert, Rosenthal, Busoni and Handel. However, even if you have fingers that are suited for piano playing, ability to play well still has to be trained. Someone with fingers that are suited for piano playing will still lose out to someone who does not have piano playing hands if the latter puts in more effort in his practice.

When I reach 40 years old, I will not be able to play as well because my fingers will become stiff.
Your fingers will not become stiff if you have been consistent with your practice, even if you started as an older beginner. But if you start learning piano at age 40, or started since young but has stopped for a considerable number of years, your fingers will become stiff when you pick up piano at age 40. Furthermore, a great number of professional pianists are well above 40 years old, and some of them are still playing at the age of 80 or 90. It is certainly true that unlike dancers or models, musicians have the longest career lifespan.

I must be tone deaf because I cannot tell what note it is after it is being played./ It is mandatory to have perfect pitch in order to be a good musician.
Being able to tell what note it is after it is played without reference to any other note means that you have perfect pitch, but being not able to do so does not mean that you are tone deaf, because being tone deaf means that you are not able to discriminate between different notes, not just one single note. Thus it is possible to not have perfect pitch, but not be tone-deaf. And it is actually not very common for people to have perfect pitch. There are many musicians who only have good relative pitch – the ability to identify the interval between different notes (that is why they can play by hearing), and this might actually be a more useful skill than perfect pitch, especially for orchestra players because different musical styles uses different concert pitch.

If my child can reach grade 8, I will buy a good piano for him. A cheap, low quality piano is sufficient because the child has at least something to practice on. All pianos sound the same, it is the skill of the player that makes the piano sound different.
This is a very common misconception, and it is one of the worst mistakes a parent can make regarding a child’s music education, especially if the child has the potential to excel in it. While it is possible for one to reach grade 8 practicing on a low quality piano, it is not without agony and frustration, especially for a musically sensitive child, because he knows what can achieve by playing on a good piano, but simply could not do it on his own piano. My definition of a good piano is simply an exam model with a good sound and touch, not a grand piano. And it can cost as low as 2K to get a second hand one. By the time the child reaches grade 8 (after much frustration) and if the parent really gets a good piano by then, the new piano will only be used for one year before the child stops after grade 8. And the child certainly would have reached grade 8 much earlier or done much better for his exam if he have had a good piano to practice on because he would have enjoyed his practice so much more. The worst decision parents can make in buying a piano is to buy according to the price – to get the cheapest one for their child. Practicing on a low quality instrument simply does not do a musically inclined child any justice at all, and it might even be detrimental to his sense of pitch and tone with prolonged exposure to an instrument with bad tone that easily goes out of tune.
Many people do not understand the difference between a good and bad sounding piano because they are not piano players and have never really heard (listen) to a good/bad sound before. Listening to a good sounding piano versus a bad sounding one is like listening to your favourite music with good quality speakers versus listening to it on your laptop/handphone. No matter how good the CD/performer is, it is simply not the same experience as listening with good quality speakers. Furthermore, a piano consists of moving parts, so the difference between a good and bad piano is not only the sound but also the touch. Playing on a good piano versus a bad piano is like driving a Mitsubishi lancer versus an old COE car. No matter how fast you try to drive the old car, it can never run as fast as the lancer. Yes, it can still get you from place to place, but the cost is the time taken to travel and the cost of a breakdown.

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When will my child be ready for the Grade 1 exam?

When will my child be ready for the grade 1 exam? This is the most common question that I get from parents. Here is a detailed description of the skills that one needs to attain before attempting the grade 1 exam. Hope that it clears all your doubts.

Early Beginner
Pieces Able to play a single-line melody using both   hands alternatively
Technique Able to play with legato (smoothly), staccato   (detached) and two-note slurs
Sight-reading Able to read notes from C to G in treble clef and   C to F in the bass clef in middle C position
Rhythm able to clap and play(after hearing or reading)   simple rhythms including crotchets, minims and semibreves
Aural (pitch) able to differentiate between high and low   sounds, loud and soft, going up and going down
Mid-Late Beginner
Pieces Able to play both hands with a RH melody with a 2   or 3-note block chord in the LH
Able to play both hands with a non-chord harmony   in the LH
Able to play in at least 2 different fixed   positions C, F, G position
Technique Able to do simple finger turns, finger stretches   and finger substitutions in exercises
Able to play a melody with RH legato and chord   changes in the LH
Scales Able to play at least 2 scales in one octave,   separate hands
Sight-reading Able to read notes from one octave below middle C   to one octave able middle C or in both C and G positions and able to   sight-read in these positions
Rhythm Able to clap and play rhythms including quavers   and dotted rhythms
Aural (pitch) Able to differentiate between steps and skips in   sound
Grade 1 (before   registering for exams)
Pieces Able to play a melody both hands with a broken   chord accompaniment in a fixed position (at least 2 different types of broken   chords)
Able to play a piece with the melody both in the   LH and RH
Able to play a melody both hands with a   combination of 2 or more different positions using finger turns, stretches   and finger substitutions
Technique Able to play both hands with one hand legato (usually RH) and one hand staccato (usually LH)
Scales Able to play at least 2 scales in two octaves, separate hands
Sight-reading Able to read notes in all lines and spaces of the   treble and bass clef
Able to sight-read intervals (must be able to tell interval at first sight, not count)
Rhythm Able to clap and play simple syncopated rhythms
Aural (pitch) Able to differentiate between the first 3 tones of each major scale (Do, Re, Mi)

*LH = left hand, RH = right hand, BH = both hands, SH = separate hands

*For grade 1, it is not necessary to have all the skills listed as some will be taught while learning the exam pieces, but student should have at least most of the skills. For each level, student should be able to play at least 3 pieces from that level fluently (performance standard) – that means accurate notes and rhythm, even speed and tone, and confident playing.

*Note that the requirements stated above are only requirements for a secure pass in the Grade 1 exam, not a distinction.

You would have noticed that I did not state down the amount of time required for a beginner to be ready for the grade 1 exam. This is because the amount of time varies greatly between different children. This is not only due to how fast each child learns and how much he/she practices, but also how much parental involvement the child receives from the parent, especially for young beginners. I personally have six year olds who took less than a year to be ready for grade 1 exam and older children who took years to be ready for the exam. ABRSM suggests 1.5 years to be ready for the exam, but this is only for an average child starting at around primary school age who has sufficient practice and parental involvement.