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.
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
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.
All books shown below are available for loan at the teacher’s studio
Nurtured by Love – by Shinichi Suzuki
In this trailblazing book, world-renowned violinist and teacher Shinichi Suzuki presents the philosophy and principles of his teaching methods for developing the natural abilities of every child. He illustrates by examples the amazing success of his work with young pupils at his music school in Japan, which has attracted the attention of educators from every major nation.
Professor Suzuki presents convincing evidence to substantiate his view, basic to his method called Talent Education, that every child is born with ability. Accordingly, a child’s slowness in any subject indicates a deficiency in his environment, educational or otherwise.
The author writes, “If Einstein, Goethe and Beethoven had been born during the Stone Age, wouldn’t they likewise have had only the cultural ability and education of men of the Stone Age? The converse is also true; if I were to receive a suckling babe of the Stone Age and educate him, before long he would be able to play a violin sonata by Beethoven as well as any young person of today.”
According to Professor Suzuki, the greatest joy an adult can know comes from developing a child’s potential so that he can express all that is harmonious and best in human beings. In Nurtured by Love, the author relates many meaningful experiences in his career and the circumstances which bought about his discovery of the Talent Education method.
Professor Suzuki has achieved worldwide acclaim, and his students, under his direction, have performed internationally, including appearances at the UN, the Julliard School of Music, and numerous places throughout the United States.
How to Grow a Young Music Lover – by Cheri Fuller
From playtime to bedtime, music builds children’s cognitive, motor, and creative development and adds joy and beauty to their lives. Experts believe that children’s exposure to music in the early years determine both their musical ability and their capacity to enjoy music. Regardless of a child’s age or your own musical background, you can learn How to Grow a Young Music Lover who will have a passion for music that lasts a lifetime. In this book you will discover:
The musical activities a child needs at each age
- The best rhymes and recordings for children
- The link between musical enjoyment and school achievement
- and many more practical, insightful, and fun ways to teach children about music!
*Includes a “Classics Month-by-Month” chapter offering a full year of music curriculum for the parent or teacher.
Raising An Amazing Musician
This self-help guide is essential reading for any parent or carer wishing to know more about bringing music into the life of their child. 20 short chapters, which assume no musical knowledge, are packed with expert advise on how to support your child through every stage of musical development, from birth through early childhood.
Helpful advise is included on:
- music-making with the very young
- recognising and encouraging musicality
- choosing the right instrument
- getting the most out of music lessons
- encouraging practice
- public performance
- music exams
Whatever stage of learning your child has reached, Raising an Amazing Musician will empower you to make the right decisions for your young musician, and enrich their experience of music as an enjoyable life-enhancing activity.
This book is actually for teachers, but for parents who are ambitious and keen to help more in your child’s practice, you might want to read this book. Otherwise you can also consider a shorter version of this book meant for students – Not Until You’ve Done Your Practice!
Music students have to be taught how to work by themselves… because for six days in every seven, they have to work alone.
Instead of the traditional obsession with how much practice students do, The Practice Revolution looks at how students practice in the first place. With over 320 pages of what works, what doesn’t and why, it’s the most ambitious, comprehensive and approachable guide to practicing ever undertaken, aiming to turn professional music teachers into nothing short of practicing experts….
…so that they can then help their students become practicing experts too…
And for today’s students, who are busier than ever before, making sure that the time they do spend practicing actually produces results is one of the best lessons they’ll ever learn.
Learn to Read Music
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.)
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 key-notes.com!). 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.
(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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exam Boards and Overseas Music Instituitions
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
visit this link to know more about ABRSM exams.
Trinity College London
the second most popular exam board
London College of Music
The Australian and New Zealand Cultural Arts Limited (ANZCA) Exam Board
For more contemporary music exam options
Music Institutions in Singapore
School of the Arts
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
Lasalle College of the Arts
Singapore Raffles Music College
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music
Music Shops and Retailers
Yamaha Music School
Sells brand new yamaha pianos
Cristofori Music School
Sells brand new Cristofori pianos as well as other brands, and a wide variety of 2nd hand pianos
This shop sells brand new Kawai piano as well as other korean and german brands and used pianos. They also carry Steinway and Bosendofer pianos. This is also the music school to go to to register for Trinity College London exams.
Gramecy Music School
This shop specialises in strings rather than piano. But they do carry certain brands of piano like Wilhelm Tell
This shop also specialises in strings, but the also sell Reuben piano
This shop also specialises in strings, but this is the shop to go to if you are looking for music books and publications (especially diploma level scores) not found in regular stores.
This shop carries brands like Atlas, Hailun and Petrof, but they also sell 2nd hand pianos
This is the shop to look for if you want to buy high-end german brand pianos
This is the shop to go to for cheap piano books and accessories. They also carry certain brands of piano like Ellington and Steinberg & Song and also used pianos.
Online Music Retailers
Music Learning Resources
Music Games for Children
There are actually more music games available for iPad and Andriod nowadays, so I’m going to do an article on that soon. So do follow this site for more to come!
Music Theory Learning Resources
Ricci Adams’ Musictheory.net – a great site to learn music theory and ear training.
Another music theory blog site.
Musicians’ Networks and Resources
Singapore Music Teachers Association
Inside Music Teaching
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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.
|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|
|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.
What you need to know about exams (ABRSM)
The practical and theory exam are conducted as two separate exams and students are registered for these exams separately. Practical exams are usually held in February to March or July to September but registration starts as early as half a year before the exam. You can register for exam through a music school, a private teacher, or by yourself – simply go down to the ABRSM exams office during the registration period to register for exams or send in the completed form. If you already had registered for exams before (as an applicant), you can register for exams online.
ABRSM Representative Office
Singapore Symphonia Co Ltd
4 Battery Road #19-01
Bank of China Building
Registering as an applicant and/or a candidate
An applicant refers to the person registering for the exam. An applicant can be a music school, music teacher, parent, or yourself. A candidate is the person represented by an applicant for an exam. So, if you are registering for exams yourself, you can both be an applicant and a candidate. If your teacher is registering for you, you are the candidate and your teacher the applicant. All correspondences of the exam are sent to the applicant only and any changes with regards to the exam can only be made by the applicant.
For more information about exam registration and fees, visit http://sg.abrsm.org/en/exam-booking/fees/
Practical exam results are usually released about one month after the exam whereas theory results are released after two to three months as they are sent to UK for marking. The marking schemes for both exams are as follows.
Practical exams are marked out of a total of 150, with 100 marks required for a pass, 120 for a merit and 130 for a distinction.
There are four parts in the piano exam.
- Prepared Pieces
Candidate needs to play 3 prepared pieces from a set list.
- Scales and Arpeggios
Candidate needs to memorize and play out scales and arpeggios.
Examiner will provide an unseen short piece for the candidate to play.
Candidates are tested on pulse or rhythm clapping, echo singing, and for grade 4 and above, sight-singing and general questions after listening to a short piece.
|Practical Exam Marking Scheme|
|Category||Passing Mark||Full Marks|
|Pieces||1 Piece from List A||20||30|
|1 Piece from List B||20||30|
|1 Piece from List C||20||30|
|Scales and Arpeggios||14||21|
Theory exams are marked out of a total of 100, with 66 marks required for a pass, 80 for a merit and 90 for a distinction.
For practical exams from grade 1 to 5, there are no pre-requisites to taking these exams. Candidates registering for grades 6, 7 and 8 must have already passed one of the following qualifications:
• ABRSM Grade 5 Theory (or above)
• ABRSM Practical Musicianship Grade 5
• ABRSM Solo Jazz subject Grade 5
• Grade 5 Theory (or above) from any of these exam boards: Trinity Guildhall, London College of Music (LCM), Australian Music Exam Board (AMEB), University of South Africa (UNISA)
There are no pre-requisites for taking any music theory exam.
Important notes for students taking the exams:
• Do arrive 15-20mins earlier than your scheduled time. This will ensure that there are no last minute panics. Sometimes examiners might finish examining the previous student earlier so you might have to go in slightly earlier than your scheduled time.
• Do check the exam venue correctly. Different buildings and streets might have similar names.
• Remember to bring any form bring ID – student pass, birth cert, passport, IC, driving licence, etc.
• Remember to bring your exam pieces book for the practical exam and your own pencil and eraser for the theory exam
• Do bring a jacket to the exam room in case it is cold.
For those who have never took an exam before, here is a video of a Grade 1 exam