I thought I’d share something I call The Capo Common-Tone Chord Concept with you in this month’s article.  This is something I use with great success to get new guitar students ready to play music quickly.  In my role as worship director at my church it’s been an indispensable tool in getting new guitar students up and running on the worship team. The first chords most guitarists learn are G, C, D, and Em.  In the key of G, these chords cover the 1 – 4 – 5 – 6m chords that are found in most folk, pop, and rock songs.

Key of G basic open position chords After I teach these basic chords, I usually teach my students a special voicing concept for G, C, D, and Em that is used more widely in the music they really want to play.  After that, I show them how to use the capo and suddenly they’re able to play a lot of music in a lot of different keys! One of the things that used to frustrate me as a guitarist is when I would buy a piece of sheet music only to discover later that the guitar chord diagrams don’t show that actual chord voicings that are being played on the original recording of the song!  That frustration worsened if the song was in a non-friendly guitar key like Ab, Bb, or B.  Even if I learned how to play a Bb barre chord, it never sounded like the guitar in the original recording.  I knew something else was going on that the sheet music wasn’t telling me.  It was only when I discovered this common-tone chord concept that I learned what was actually happening! Here’s how the Capo Common-Tone Chord Concept works:

  1. Place your 3rd and 4th fingers (fretting hand) on the 1st and 2nd strings at the 3rd fret as shown in the diagram below (circled in red).  These two notes (D and G) are the “common tones” that will remain the same for all 4 chords.
  2. Since the 3 & 4 fingers stay in the same place for all 4 chord shapes, the 1 & 2 fingers are the only fingers to that move.  Look at the 1 & 2 fingers in the G chord.  Notice how they move one string over to create the Cadd9 chord.  Very simple movement!
  3. To make the Dsus4 chord, the 1 & 2 fingers split on either side of the 2nd string (like they do in a regular D chord).
  4. Finally, the 1 & 2 fingers land on the 5th & 4th strings to make the Em7 chord.

Capo Common-Tone Chords How to apply this concept:  Let’s say your chord progression is Em – C – G – D.  Try playing the common tone voicings instead of the basic chord forms.  For instance, if you see a C chord in your chart, play the Cadd9 voicing instead.  When you see D, play the Dsus4 instead.  If you come across a C2 (Csus2), the Cadd9 is going to sound great.  This approach might drive a music theory purist crazy – but to most ears all these voicing are going to sound great.  Try it! In the diagram below, I show you how to easily change the G chord into a G5, a.k.a. G(no3), by removing the 1 finger. (The 5th string gets muted by the 2nd finger.)  Now, move the 2nd finger over one string and your Cadd9 becomes a legitimate Csus2 because the 3rd of the chord (that was previously played at the 2nd fret of the 4th string) is now muted.  I love the jangly sound of those treble strings! G5 and C2 But wait!  There’s more!  Arming yourself with a capo, the guitarist’s top accessory (behind a tuner of course), enables you to use these common-tone shapes to play in at lease 5 more common keys! Common Tone Capo Chart No more going into cardiac arrest when you’re called upon to play a song in Bb (or Ab, B, etc.)!  Just slap your capo on at the 3rd fret and play your common-tone shapes!  Try this experiment:  Play the following chord progression using the basic open Key of G shapes - C – G – Em – D.  Try playing the same progression substituting the common-tone shapes.  Now put your capo at the 3rd fret and play those same shapes.  You’re playing C – G – Em – D shapes, but sounding Eb – Bb – Gm – F.  I’m betting both you and your students will love the sound of the common-tone chords and find the concept very, very useful, especially when transposing.  When first learning this concept, it may help to write your transposed chord shapes over the existing chord names in your chart.  After a while, you’ll begin to recognize them and you’ll no longer need to write them in…you’ll be able to transpose in your head! In my next post, I’ll expand this concept to include some inversions. Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

"Circuit Training" Music LessonsThey’re not all the same but every now and again you meet a teenager determined to fit the stereotype. With so much hair over their face you’re not actually sure what they look like, their shoulders are dropped so low their hands are practically touching the floor and all questions are met with an obligatory “dunno” response (if you’re lucky)!

Were we ever like that? I’m sure many of today’s finest musicians had their moments as teenagers and I would like to just say that many of the teenagers I’ve taught have been highly “switched on” and motivated. But how can we inspire even the most apathetic student?

Enter something I’ve been trying out I call “Music Lesson Circuit Training!”

Now I need at this point to warn you that Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

A is for Appdecide_now

My most recent favorite app is called Decide Now–only 99 cents!  Although it’s not a music-related app it is so easy to customize that you won’t be able to stop using it. A game of Piano Charades is just one example of how I implement this versatile app to reinforce music terminology by students acting out Italian terms at the keys. Here are the steps:

1) Call out words such as: piano, forte, fermata, ritardando, presto, largo, etc. and nudge students to act them out physically. This means YOU need to do it, too. For example: piano could be walking on tip toes while ritardando could be jogging in place and gradually slowing down the pace–like a train approaching a station.

decidenow-22) After all terms are physically re-enacted, have the students jot down each term to review the spelling and the definition. If they are youngsters, have them draw a picture instead of writing out the definition. Ex: ritardando could be represented with a train engine.

3) Ask a volunteer to play one phrase of a well-prepared piece as the composer intended.

4) The performer must spin the wheel featuring all the terms just reviewed without letting the others see where the Wheel-of-Fortune-like spinner stops. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music Theory, Product Reviews, Teaching Tips

Playing the Blues“Can I hear your progress on that song we were working on last week please?”

He just shrugged his shoulders and looked at me sheepishly!

“Oh okay then. How about those exercises we were doing? Can I hear how you got on with them?”

He just looked at his feet!

“Oh dear! What HAVE you been practicing?”

Suddenly a mischievous grin appeared on his face.

“I’ve been playing the blues ALL week!!! It’s been driving my mum crazy. I play it before and after school. I can’t stop!”

It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have at learning to improvise the blues. And not forgetting the kudos it earns them when they can use it to entertain friends and family. Best of all, it’s just so easy to learn!

So this month, here are some free resources to get you started or to add to the ones you use already. I’ve tried to make the sheet music universal to whatever instrument you play or teach (treble & bass clef/guitar & bass tab). I’ve also recorded a slow blues backing track (in G) that you and your students can “jam” with.

Introducing the coolest scale on the planet! Whatever instrument your student plays, they will love learning the Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

The Blank Stare.

blank stareWe dread it, but we’ve all seen it: the face that tells you unequivocally that your students are lost and haven’t got a clue what is going on. This can happen suddenly, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Picture this scenario:

My lesson or class has been rolling along smoothly, and I’ve felt encouraged by the odd head nodding, or some gentle smiles tentatively creasing passive faces. I’ve smiled myself, warming to my subject, and then I’ve taken the fatal step.
                ‘And that’s how we know that the composer is modulating!’, I swoon. ‘She’s been hinting for the last two systems with those occasional B-flats and now we know from this arpeggio followed by the cadence: we are in F-major!’. 
                My revelation is met with silence, which is not what I expected. A hand shoots up, breaking the still pool of now immobile faces. ‘Why is it F-major and not F-flat major?’.  
                What?!’ I think, and try not to frown.  ‘Can you explain what you mean?’, I say.
                ‘I thought you said those were the “flat keys”, so why isn’t it F-flat major?’.
                ‘Because F isn’t flat,’ I reply. 
                Faces go blank and a thick pause of unknowing oozes across the classroom. Heads drop and a faint voice cries into its sleeve, ‘I don’t get it!’ and (since this is the film version) all the desks start shrinking backwards away from the teacher and disappear into a black abyss at the back of the room….

“Unknown unknowns”

ha ha i don't get it tshirtIt would be my guess that every music teacher reading this will have experienced at least some version of this same scenario. It can happen with children, teenager, or adult students, and, although it looks like the moment of catastrophe was caused by what I’ve called ‘one fatal step’ instructionally speaking, of course, these scenarios represent a series of moments of unknowing coming to a head. The student who asked this question (and it is a real question asked me in a class just last year) must have experienced many moments in previous classes when he hadn’t understood what was going on but hadn’t said anything. At the same time, I will have been happily piling concept after concept on top of this student without realizing that he hadn’t understood what was going on.

How can it happen that we sometimes unwittingly leave our students behind? And is there anything we can do to help those students who find the theoretical side of music difficult, or are some people simply ‘more musical’ than the others, who will always at some point get left behind? Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Student Compositions

Student Compositions

Do you teach composition skills in your studio? Many teachers tell me teaching composition is something they would like to do, but never seem to get around to doing. There are many reasons given: no time, not sure where to start, student hasn’t shown an interest, not sure how to teach it.

I would not really say I “teach” composition, but more that I “encourage” composition. This is the level of intentionality that I have found to be comfortable for me in this area. Hopefully you can find one or two ideas for your studio in this blog.

The biggest help I have found is to start early, before the student thinks it might be hard! Composition grows out of improvisation, so I include improvisation at the very first lesson, and give it a little time every week for the first year. Just 3-4 minutes is enough to keep the spark alive. Emphasize that there is no “right” way, and that the student’s ideas are just as legitimate as yours.

There are so many ways to do improvisation with young children. Start improv on the black keys so that everything sounds harmonious. Model ideas for the student, and encourage them to listen for interesting textures and sounds. Make the improv tell a story. Sometimes I make up a story line that matches a Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music Theory, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

cornelis-saftleven-the-duetWhat can we teachers do to keep the love of music alive for our students? As I said in my opening blog last month, one of the best things we can do is to have our students make music with other people as much as possible. Whether we are teaching absolute beginners or advanced students, playing music with your teacher, sibling, or another student is always possible, and it is guaranteed to enhance solo playing, while also at the same time being informative, inspiring, and fun.

Finding duets … in unlikely places

We may agree that playing duets with our students is a great way to keep them engaged, but where can we find material? And how can we do this for all our students without having to buy an entirely new library of pieces for multiple players?

duet handsFor those of you who teach piano, I would suggest looking at Yiyi Ku’s excellent MTH blog on four-hand piano music, which also contains recommendations for scores that can be purchased on line.

For all instruments, including voice, there is much we can do to find music to play together with our students from the music we already have. The first step is to remember that every solo piece we play is already a duet – or at least a potential duet – and that the more time we teachers spend giving our students tools for unlocking the duet potential of their pieces, the more we will be opening up some of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of music making for them.

Every teacher will have their own way of approaching the music they teach, and every musician will of course see different patterns and other improvisational potential in the solo pieces they play. By way of example, here’s a brief overview of a few of the approaches I take both in my studio and in my work as a performer to unlock the duet potential of solo pieces. These examples use quite simple pieces to demonstrate my point, but of course the same approaches can be applied to music of all levels.

Finding the song

frans-van-mieris-the-elder-duetWhether a solo piano piece, a jazz standard, a Handel aria, or a Bach partita, every piece of music can in one way or another be reduced to a song, by which I mean a piece in two parts: a melody with an accompaniment. Sometimes the division between these two parts will be obvious (a Handel aria – a catchy tune with many repeated chords underneath!), while at other times they will be more blended (a Bach fugue or the development section of a sonata). But some form of melody and accompaniment will always be there: we simply have to take the time to learn to winkle them out.

Once we find a melody and accompaniment in a piece, we have found the basis of the duet hidden in the piece. (There are many possible versions of course; use your ear to find out what melody and accompaniment stands out as sounding most representative to you.) We will also have identified the building blocks for endless varieties of musical play, whether swapping parts, changing rhythms, or adding or subtracting melody notes or harmonies as we explore the piece together in two parts.

Finding the duet in a solo piano piece by Haydn

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from the solo piano repertoire: the first section of a simple binary form in Haydn’s Minuet in C (fig. 1).

hayden minuet in c

A teacher starting a student on this piece might start by *not* giving the piece, but instead providing the student with a harmonic pattern to play, for example something like this (fig. 2): [To make the scores shown here, I’ve used noteflight.com].

hayden minuet progression

The potential for duet playing with a pattern such as this is endless. The teacher can play both parts or one part, one person can play the pattern while another improvises over it, or one person can sing (if possible using solfège) while the other person plays.

Exploring the harmonic and rhythmic pattern in this way helps the musical imagination, increases the awareness of harmonic motion, and is of course just plain fun. Once this can be done freely by the student (including the second part of the binary form of course), the teacher can then give the piece, which will look strongly similar – but in key ways different! – than the general pattern on which it is based.

The soloist will now approach the piece completely differently. There will be much more to hear, many more patterns to recognize, variations to notice, and it will be much easier to play with natural emphasis both note-to-note and in phrases. In an important way, even the beginning student will be approaching the piece in a way that is much closer to the position the composer took. He or she, too, will have created the piece as a kind of fixed variation on some known pattern or improvisation.

Playing duets with singers

singer in recitalEveryone can benefit from duet playing, and if you teach singers, I would strongly recommend that you take them off the melody line and into other parts of the texture to get them thinking more broadly about the role the melody plays from their very earliest lessons.

As in the above example, singing teachers can do this by preparing a student for a piece by first giving them some form of harmonic outline, and then engaging with them in different levels of musical play. The teacher and student can swap parts; the student can learning how to both play and sing; and both teacher and student can trying out some improvisational singing over a chordal framework extracted from a solo song.

Here is an example of a simple chord progression taken from the first phrase of the song ‘Flow my teares’ by English composer John Dowland (fig 3).

flow my teares - chord progression approximation

Before starting students on the piece, teachers can give this progression to students to take home and practice to the point that they can play it fluidly enough to be able to improvise a sung melody as they play. (If they are really challenged at the piano, they can be asked to play just the bass line, or the bass line and the top note in the right hand.)

Improvisation is not easy for everyone, so it helps to give students some tips to start them off with confidence. Once they can play the bass line, they can be told to sing any note indicated in the treble clef in that bar. As they get better at this, they can try to sing all the notes in each treble clef bar, and then play around with these notes by singing different rhythms, and by filling in or leaving out notes in each bar as they please.

The key is to get the singers to listen to the chords as they sing and to learn to accept or reject notes that don’t ‘sound right’ (based on the style of the piece as made clear in the chord progressions) by trial and error. (For singers who do not play piano, a graphic representation of the chords on a picture of the keyboard will work very well instead of notated music in the first instance.)

You can also send the text of the song home with the singer to see what they come up with when asked to write their own realization of the lyric or poem over the composer’s chosen chord progression.

When the student then brings the material to their next lesson, both student and teacher can improvise together using the same methods. When the student is finally given Dowland’s melody (fig 4), his clever text setting and beautiful dissonances will be heard as the revelation they are.

Dowland Flow my teares

Singers who strum

orpheusIf your singing students play guitar, ukulele or other chord-based instruments, it can be hugely interesting and informative to get them to bring these instruments to their lessons and to try to ‘accompany’ themselves while singing. This works whether they are singing a Schubert song (many are based on existing folksongs that can be sung and compared to Schubert’s version), a Bach aria (often very elaborate note to note but quite simple harmonically when all the ornamental notes are removed), or the recitative from a Mozart opera (these cannot be sung correctly if you don’t know how the chords fit together with the cadence of the text).

The music will suddenly take on a completely different shape if singers are asked to think of their line as something that must fit together with an ongoing harmonic motion they are producing themselves, or that is being produced as part of alternating duet playing with their teacher in lessons. Without a doubt, once they are back in their role as soloists, their pianists and conductors will notice the difference immediately.

The elephant in the room

Careful readers will have noticed that there is one term that I’ve not used throughout this blog post: ‘music theory’. This is because, while I recognize that this can be taught separately from performance, I strongly believe that all performers must understand how music fits together, whether they acquire this knowledge instinctively through playing or through improvising as outlined above, or technically through other study.

Creating duets out of solo repertoire as part of the learning process is one way to do this. There is much more to say on this topic and I invite all readers to chime in on this thread by sharing their techniques and experiences in the comments below.

The solo duet

In closing, I’d just like to add that, as a singer, I’m rarely performing truly solo repertoire in a professional context. Inevitably there is a pianist or an orchestra present, so in this work, of course, I’m writing from the perspective of a chamber musician.

But, like most singers, I practice predominantly by myself, and in these moments one can feel very much like a soloist, finding one’s own way through complex music and text in a quiet room, alone. Being able to play other instruments is hugely helpful in this regard, and I would certainly encourage teachers to press their students on this point; it really is necessary for singers to have at least basic piano proficiency if they intend to be professionals, and it’s always better to start sooner rather than later.

But it’s also helpful for all so-called soloists to remember that, really, we are never playing alone: our composer, and if our music features text, our poet, are always in the room with us, actively seeking our improvisational (in the sense of unique) response to the infinite number of possible interpretations they have left open for us in the score.

Any skills we gain duetting with our teachers, family, and friends, will certainly increase our understanding, and enhance our musical pleasure. But they will also serve us well when it is most important: when we are duetting with our composers, alone.

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Posted in Music History & Facts, Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Most of the melodies I use for beginners are built on the pentatonic scale, partly because this limits the notes students need to worry about (some pentatonic fiddle tunes use only 2 fingers!), and because there are so many great tunes that use the pentatonic scale.

the-scale

In classical music, this scale was hardly used in baroque times and then became more popular in Romantic and impressionistic music.  In traditional music, the pentatonic scale has been very common for centuries in Celtic music, American folk, gospels, blues, country, rock, jazz, East European, West African, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Greek, Native American, Southeast Asian, South American, Afro-Caribbean — in fact, it’s hard to find places where the pentatonic scale is not in common use.

Carl Orff believed the pentatonic scale was natural for children, so the Orff method focuses on its use for younger learners.  It’s also common in the Kodaly method, and in Waldorf schools, for similar reasons.

Below are a few examples of common uses of the pentatonic.  Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory


PuzzleIn last month’s article, we discussed the secret of moving new information from our short-term memory into our long-term memory: PRS!

Okay, so here’s a quick memory test: can you remember what PRS stood for? No? Yes? Just in case you need reminding; Patterns, Repetition and Stimulus! (Link to part 1)

This month, I would like to focus on using “patterns” to help not only ourselves but our students to deeply embed important learnt information into our long-term memory.

The Big Mental Jigsaw!

The long-term memory works to connect new information to that which was previously learnt. A bit like slotting in a new piece of jigsaw to the sections previously solved. Jumping to a completely abstract concept can be a very challenging leap for both learner and teacher and best avoided. Better teaching is to build on what the student already understands. This is the concept behind grades or levels in music education, providing a gentle and systematic approach to learning based on progressively growing the students knowledge and skills.

When introducing a new idea in a lesson, can we Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Teaching Tips

Guest Post by George Ramsay

DorianEvery serious guitarist inevitably comes across modes as they hone their improvisational chops. Unfortunately, they often confuse and in turn aren’t used very much because they aren’t understood. The goal of part 1 of this posting is to simplify the Dorian mode, eliminating confusion while providing a few practice tips. Part 2 will explain why we use Dorian, and what chord progressions lead to Dorian being applicable.

First, notice the end of the previous paragraph. I referred to the Dorian mode as a scale. Why? Partly because I am already getting tired of typing D-o-r-i-a-n, but also because for us to use it when we improvise, we should think of it as just another scale—much like the major scale, and even more like the minor scale.

In fact, all Dorian really is at the most basic level is a minor scale with one “altered” note. In other words, we play a minor scale with one note raised—the 6th, by a half-step—and we have Dorian.

For example, if we play an A Minor scale, our notes would be A-B-C-D-E-F-G (exactly the same as C major, except starting on an A). To make this Dorian, just raise the 6th note by a half step: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G.

How do we use this in our playing? I will offer two suggestions, the latter being my mode of choice. Pun intended. Read more…

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Posted in Music Theory, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips