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Four basic and progressive ways to prepare your students for those spontaneous holiday singalongs.
There are three scenarios in which it can be easy for our piano students – if unequipped – to find themselves experiencing a moment of either shyness, terror, embarrassment, or shame.
All three scenarios involve being put on the spot and an assumption by another that since the student takes piano lessons, they SHOULD be able to do these things.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. These moments, while seemingly small, can have a lasting impact on the student, leaving feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence. It doesn’t have to be that way, though!
Can you guess what these three things are?
The first we’ve talked about before on this podcast, and that’s being able to play Happy Birthday – you can find more on how to help your students learn to play the tune in episode 34.
The second is to be able to play SOMETHING – ANYTHING when requested in an informal setting when they don’t have any “music” with them. We can equip our students for this scenario in two ways: by teaching improvisation and having them always keep a bank of polished pieces they can play by memory. Call them what you like, but one of the best labels I’ve heard these called are “Anywhere, Anytime” pieces.
While the third scenario is probably the least likely to occur of the three if it’s going to happen, it will occur at a specific time of year that’s just around the corner. I’m not just talking about playing Christmas songs FOR people but WITH people – singalong style.
Christmas music is one genre that can easily give even non-singers the “singing” bug. Singing well-known tunes together is a beautiful thing and a whole topic in and of itself. If and when the opportunity arises, how COOL will it be for your student to have the confidence to play along on the piano when someone at the holiday party wants to jump into a spontaneous round of some of their holiday favorites like Jingle Bells or Silent Night?
In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the how-to behind equipping our students for special moments like these and, in turn, building their confidence as a pianist for life.
Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast. This podcast is brought to you every week by me, your host, Amy Chaplin. While I’ve only been in your ears since January of 2022, the Piano Pantry blog has been supporting teachers since 2016.
If you’re enjoying this ad-free content and would like to show support, you can join my new Patreon community.
I wanted to give a shout-out to supporter Mary Woods. As an Insider, Mary gets access to a monthly Zoom meeting where, together, we will tackle our email inboxes so we feel peace of mind and breathing room to focus our energies on teaching the rest of the month.
If you want in on this, join now, as our first meeting is the day after this episode drops – Wednesday, October 25. Find the link in the show notes. I’ll see you there!
Around mid-September, I approach all of my students and ask if they would like to learn any Christmas music. While it might be easy to assume everyone wants to play Christmas music, that’s not always the case. It could be for religious reasons or just because they’re not that keep on Christmas music – sacred or popular.
The next question I ask is if they want to have one good Christmas challenge piece or if they want to play lots of Christmas tunes.
While it’s not always the case, it seems like it’s usually the younger students who have only been in lessons for a couple of years and want to play as many as they can.
I haven’t always approached it like this, but more recently, I’ve been surprised by the number of students who say they would prefer to learn one challenging arrangement than a bunch of Christmas songs. This could be the season my studio is in, with most students being in lessons for 5 years or more.
The third question they get from me is if they have a particular song request. It’s better to know BEFORE I start looking for arrangements what tune they’re most excited to play.
Once everyone gets started on their one “big” Christmas arrangement in early October – or maybe a little later for younger students, after that, additional pieces are approached in a more “by-ear” manner alongside chord charts and sometimes lead sheets.
If you’re not sure what the difference is, a lead sheet includes the melodic line only and has a chord written above the single-line staff that can be used to create your own LH accompaniment. A chord chart only contains lyrics and chords. If you don’t already know a tune, it can be hard to play from a chord chart because there’s no additional information regarding the melody.
If you’re playing from a chord chart, you can pick out the melody on your own and play it in the RH while adding chord patterns in the left or play chord patterns between both hands while singing the melody.
The latter is what we’re covering today.
I’m going to walk you through a few basic accompaniment variations that can be used somewhat progressively with students, although it’s not an exact ladder. For the sake of time, I’ll just be demonstrating the first two lines of “Up on the Housetop” in C major which only uses the I-IV-V primary chords.
The first thing we always talk about is what meter a song is in. We find and feel the big pulse and then the little pulse. If the big beat is divided into twos, it’s in duple meter, and if it’s divided into three it’s in triple. Up On the Housetop is in…. duple. We would also identify if the tune is major or minor and then find the resting tone of the song, followed by the starting pitch.
The resting tone is DO, but the starting pitch we sing is not – it’s SO.
We then determine the key we are going to play the tune in – generally, I always try to pick keys that will be comfortable for people to sing in as well as for the student to play. It wouldn’t be very comfortable to sing Up on the Housetop in G as it would be very low or very high for many.
We would then identify the chords being used in the tune, which may be played as full chords in some cases and sometimes with just the chord root.
While it may be not be as pleasing to the student as playing the melody, even beginner students can play a chord root with one hand as a very basic accompaniment.
The next step might be for them to only play chords in just one hand – RH or LH, whether that be root position chords or close position inversions, OR to play the chords in the RH and add the chord root or root octaves in the LH.
For a little fuller sound, students might try adding an accompaniment pattern in the LH, like broken chords or stride bass.
Lastly, older students especially tend to love the sound of octaves. – especially in a broken pattern, like a Root – 5th – octave.
They can also add a little pulse on the RH chords to fill in a bit. In this case, I find it helps to have them pulse on the last beat of that chord before going to the next as it gives a sense of propulsion rather than just pulsing on the downbeat.
While there is always more that can be done – these are some of the very basic steps to playing chordal accompaniment patterns in a singalong style.
Don’t forget, though, to talk to your students about giving a little intro to the song, which could either be a held dominant chord with a gesturing breath or the last line of the tune.
If you’re interested in using this process with your students and having a tool to help you along the way, check out my book Christmas By Ear: 8 Tunes to Harmonize, available on PianoPantry.com. In this book, you’ll find 8 standard Christmas tunes, including Up On the Housetop that include only primary chords.
The book is flexible in that it can be used as a bit of a workbook in the lesson to guide you and your student through the process of identifying elements mentioned today, like meter, tonality, and starting pitch, as well as the chords in the piece.
One thing that makes this book different from others is that the chord charts don’t just have chord names written in but have the functions – I-IV-V, so together you can determine what key you would like to play in and the chords that will be used. The light chord print means you can directly pencil in the chord names on top of the function symbols and perhaps learn to play the piece in a couple of different keys.
Each piece includes a checklist with various ways students can play the piece, including the ways we talked about today. Every tune has both a chord chart and lead sheet available if your student want to play the melody rather than just sing along.
Find the link to this Christmas book in the show notes.
At the end of every episode in 2023, I’ve been sharing one tiny tip. They’re entirely random – sometimes have nothing to do with our profession – like today’s tip, which is to organize your groceries.
I’m not talking about at home – but at the store. As you’re grocery shopping, try to keep your cart somewhat organized. Heavy items at the back or bottom, Fragile items like eggs, potato chips, and bread in the child seat area if it’s free – produce items together and away from the meat, boxed items together – and so forth.
Not only do I try to keep the cart somewhat organized, but when you check out, I try to keep items grouped. This not only helps your checkout person but makes the unloading at home a little easier as well. Plus, the groceries look happier on the conveyor belt when they’re with their buddies.
Setting a bag of frozen peas on top of a cereal box is not a good idea, nor is putting a pound of hamburger next to a bag of potatoes. If you have a bit of a drive home or an extra errand to run – keeping cold items together helps them from warming too quickly.
This is a tip from your organized, food-loving piano teacher friend, Amy Chaplin. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts and connect with me on social media. I’m on Instagram at pianopantryamy and on Facebook.