What I Like about Rockschool Piano Exams

I love the idea of:

  • Students playing along to backing tracks. I firmly believe that this helps them to play along with a band. You don’t get that with classical piano unless it’s duets which aren’t mandatory in piano exams although I see that TCL and ABRSM of late have been including at least a piano duet as part of the recital component of their exams
  • Chords knowledge/voicing as part of technical work. I honestly think that knowledge of chords and how to play them are vitally important. I am delighted that Rockschool examines this aspect. However I also think that the scales and arpeggios portion of the technical work is rather demanding of students who are not motivated.
  • I think their improvisation and interpretation are very well structured. They improvise based on chords from the get go albeit in a more gradual and step-by-step fashion as compared to LCM’s jazz piano. For example, for Rockschool’s grade 1, candidates improvise only melodies on either hand based on a 4-6 bars of chord progression with chord symbols indicated. Compare this against LCM’s grade 1 where left hand is required. However, Rockschool may be considered more difficult than LCM as the candidate is required to play along to a backing track.
  • I like the idea of the general musicianship questions where candidate answer questions based on one of their pieces performed. I think this is pseudo theory but based on the pieces performed which makes it more practical and relevant than completing theory worksheets.

The key disadvantage of Rockschool is the limited set pieces. There’s six pieces per book and they aren’t cheap. However, the pieces are very likely to appeal to students who are into contemporary music. I wonder though maybe it’s a case of using Rockschool’s pieces for some of the other music examination boards that accept free choice pieces or vice-versa.

LCM Jazz Piano Exams

I am convinced of the value of the jazz piano exams offered by London College of Music (“LCM”). I purchased handbooks 1 and 2 which covered most of what I need to know to prepare students for the exams from grade 1 to grade 8.

After much thought and consideration, I decided that it would be unsuitable for young children and definitely not for beginners. Even for grade 1, the requirements of:

  • the set pieces, where you are required to pick at least one, is about grade 2 or 3 based on ABRSM or TCL level. However, the list of optional pieces is roughly on par with the equivalent grade in the ABRSM or TCL level although I think the grade 6 to 8 pieces are easier or shorter than their ABRSM or TCL equivalent. Also, the compulsory grade 1 jazz piano pieces require improvisation based on a range of notes. There’s another layer to teach here. Although I think LCM is right to do so – what is jazz without improvisation which should commence from the very beginning?
  • For the creative response test at grade 1, two bars of material are provided and the candidate is required to improvise or respond creative with another two bars. It’s essentially a question and answer format. One of the two examples of the two creative response tests showed chords and inverted chords in the left hand, and chord tones with passing notes in the right hand. I imagine I can teach students to play chords I, V and IV in the left hand by rote. For the right hand, I can start by showing them how to create melodies using chord tones and then layer in passing notes. But I have to train them to play in beat as well while doing all that under exam conditions. And never mind the fact that they have to sight read the two bars of introductory material/question for them to respond to…

As of now, and my views can and will change, I think LCM’s jazz piano is better suited for a student who is of at least grade 3 ABRSM or TCL standard, or a motivated teenager/adult who’s into jazz or a talented young child.

Reflections on Areas to Explore in my Teaching

What have worked well:

  • Start each term with pieces that students can perform at the term’s student concert. The pieces can be learnt by rote, by ear or by score.
  • Use the one note at a time when learning tunes by ear. And getting especially older adult students to play by ear directly from listening to actual songs is very difficult. Also, getting them (especially those in their 60s and 70s) to memorise music can be challenging.
  • Showing students how to harmonise the melody by ear is doable. And some actually excel in it after a few iterations.
  • Start with reading at the very beginning of the lesson before other assignments/projects eat into the time for reading
  • When teaching improvisation, student starts with the melody, then left hand then hands together within the same lesson. It is important to give improvisation ample time during lesson time. 5-10 minutes just doesn’t cut it especially for beginners
  • Parental involvement in lessons of especially younger children is vital
  • A studio wide points system can motivate especially children to practise more.
  • Give students a choice of what to learn. I usually play 2-3 pieces and have the student decide the piece they like e.g. I would play 2 or 3 exam/rote/play by ear/improvisation pieces during a lesson and student would choose piece #1, 2 or 3 to work on.

Areas to be explored

  • Learn specific classroom management techniques for group and partner lessons.
  • Have students/parents register for the new term and make deposit 2 months before the new terms starts
  • Find and implement a method/curriculum for 4-6 years old that involves movement, singing, solfege, games and fun!
  • Create a student handbook with sections titled “What to practise if I missed a lesson”, “How and how long to practise?”, “I’d love to play in a student concert but I am fearful of it”.
  • Incorporating technology within lessons and outside of lessons.
  • Explore how to introduce composition into the lessons framework.
  • Reflect on the method/curriculum for older adults (in their 60s and 70s). Maybe the curriculum should start with reading as this focuses on their strength instead of other learning methods – rote, play by ear and improvisation.

Reflections on My Journey as a Piano Teacher

Many years ago, I used to only teach children piano lessons from the age of 7 years old. This was because I taught purely out of printed method books. You can hardly teach a child that is 4 or 5 years old to read notes i.e. count notes, use the correct finger, play the right notes, curve the fingers, just to play a simple unrecognisable piece, other than perhaps Mary Had a Little Lamb?

And then I started using the Suzuki repertoire with two students who were 5 and 6 years old. I wasn’t formally trained in Suzuki however I read that a student should play a piece (almost) perfectly before they are allowed to move on to another piece. Those two students were playing Twinkle Little Star Variations for at least two months based on my recollection. And they were bored. Since then I reverted to teaching piano by reading notes albeit with a huge difference – I started teaching piano by lead sheets. I would show students how to play chords in the left hand and read the treble clef in the right hand.

Years later, I read extensively on teaching piano by rote and decided to try it. On hindsight, that was what the Suzuki method was partly based on! I think I have had great success with teaching by rote. Students are able to play rather complex sounding music after a few lessons. To this day, teaching by rote remains one of my key teaching approach.

One of my teaching philosophies or beliefs is that students should be able to play by ear. I started “guessing games” with my students whereby for a piece, I would add a note or notes incrementally and they would have to figure out which key I had pressed and replicate the notes from the beginning of a section. Their memory skills were trained this way too.

More recently, I started to actively teach improvisation to students as that is also another one of my teaching philosophies and beliefs. I used Forrest Kinney’s books for this purpose. At first for almost all of my students I would accompany them while they create “melodies”. In other words they were the primo in duet playing. I recorded the accompaniment for them on Youtube and mp3 so that they could replicate the duet playing experience at home. However the whole thing didn’t take on much. Parents have difficulties to getting the child to doodle at home along with the recorded accompaniment. However, there were a few students whom I taught the left hand part so that they can improvise on their own at home. I discovered that they were rather motivated to practise improvising at home and would often surprised and impressed me during the next lesson. Since then, there is a two step approach that I follow when teaching improvisation:

  1. I accompany student, student improvises
  2. Immediately after step 1 which can last up to 5 minutes (this is an arbitrary number) or longer depending on the student, I show the student the left hand. The student accompanies while I improvise. This goes on for up to 10 minutes.
  3. Finally the student improvises with both hands for about 5 minutes.

During the early days of me teaching improvisation, I would try to teach a piece for improvisation in 10 minutes or less. And in the same lesson, I would be also teaching students a piece by rote AND a piece by ear. Mind you, they are mostly beginners. On reflection, an improvisation piece should be considered as a “proper” piece which requires time to teach and practice time for it to be learnt and mastered. Since then, I have often use an improvisation piece to form the bulk of a 30 minute lesson.

On the topic of comping, I was convinced that it is essential for students to learn comping as who wouldn’t like to be able to accompany singers, instrumentalists or themselves or to be playing the keyboard in a band? Apparently, most of my students do not share the same sentiment as me. Firstly, my younger and older students found it difficult to memorise the notes in a chord, especially those involving black keys e.g. Db, Gb, Ab despite me teaching chords in groups of e.g. major chords involving white white white key combination (C, F and G major), white black white key combinations (D, E, A amjor). Secondly, a lot of students are unable to keep in beat while comping to a song played on e.g. Spotify or mp3 backing track. I believe this is because some of them are still unsecure in their chord playing and they are not trained to listen to another musician playing along with them. So I have ditched teaching comping to all students other than one who is learning jazz piano. On reflection, I think in terms of sequencing when to teach the skill of comping, it should be when the student is at least of intermediate level which is when the student is reasonably secure in his/her playing of chords and rhythms before we layer in the crucial element of playing with another person, band, etc. Certainly, I can start teaching students comping when they are beginners however I run into the problem of overloading students with too much skills and information, which I am most certainly guilty of.

Recently, I was worried about my students being able to play wonderfully by rote and by ear and being able to improvise but not being able to read. I fear the comments of other teachers if and when my students transfer over to them as I know that almost all piano teachers focus almost entirely on reading and passing exams during lessons. Thus, I have started getting students to read at least one page from a piano method book during lesson time. I usually get them to read two to three pages. I think like any other skill e.g. improvising, playing by ear and memorisation, it is important to develop it over time. It’s almost impossible or challenging to expect a student to read music competently by focusing on reading in only one lesson per term (there’s usually three terms per year for my studio). Therefore, I started most students on reading on the get go so that I wouldn’t have a bad reputation in the community. I know this shouldn’t be my approach but wouldn’t you be critical of me and my teaching methods if you taught piano by reading notes and passing exams?

Back to improvising, as mentioned above, I have used Forrest Kinney’s improvisational books for maybe two months. I think it’s brilliant that students are encouraged to improvise freely using any keys, scales, etc with the superimposition of a rhythmical pattern later on. However, I wonder if there can be even more structure to the improvisational process? Just yesterday, I was reminded of the question and answer technique by Robert Pace’s Music for Piano series. This technique is also used in the ABRSM jazz piano for beginners textbook. What if I start showing students how to improvise using the question and answer format too? This would certainly help when they start composing music.

Which brings me to another point – music theory. This term, I started students on formal music theory exercises. I used ABRSM graded music theory syllabus as my guide. So typically I assign two pages of a music theory workbook to a student each week and they would complete it and correct it themselves (I have the model solution). What I have found though is that there seems to be a disconnect between what they are learning in classes and the exercises they complete in the workbooks. Of course I would use as much musical lingo with them during lesson. However I feel that I should be creating games for every theory topic in the workbooks to reinforce their understanding so that theory becomes practical and real. And to be fair I have some games relating to some of the topics, just that it’s not on every topic. I think I have to reflect further on the subject of music theory to see how I would like it to go. Ideally however I would like students to dictate the tunes they have learnt by ear and rote onto manuscript paper or into a music notation software e.g. Musescore.

Back to teaching young children who are below 7 years old, I feel that lessons are a bit dry when they are made up of only pieces learnt by rote and music theory, which are learnt through games. I think lessons should incorporate singing and movement for young children, and definitely plenty of games. Singing and movement are generally fun for most children. Lessons should be done in groups too as I think it’s more engaging to meet other children and learn from them.

What You/Your Child Learns

Broadly speaking, you/your child learns the following skills:

  1. Playing by rote aka copycat games
  2. Playing by ear aka guessing games
  3. Improvising aka doodling games
  4. Note reading aka reading games
  5. Composing music aka music theory

The least information students/parents should know:

  • copycat games: look at the reminder videos if your child can’t remember what to play. Or if there are other students in the family or who are friends, get them to show you how to play the tunes
  • guessing games: print the book; you/your child need to listen to the tunes repeatedly and try to guess the notes (it may take weeks, months or years, and even thousands of times); fill in the book with your guesses and check against the answers
  • doodling games: play along with the backing tracks created by Joseph
  • reading games: decide which reading approach you prefer: the grand staff or lead sheet. Read about each approach below. If you are unsure or undecided, go with the grand staff as that’s what 99% of students learn when they learn piano. You can also switch at a later time. Get the book(s).
  • music theory: make sure you get the book(s) and aim to complete at least one chapter a week

Read more about the skills

Playing by rote aka copycat games

I start all children that is aged pre-teen and below on playing by rote. This means that they observe and play what I demonstrate on the piano for them. They focus on creating music rather than reading notes, which is what most piano teachers start with. It is almost how most children learn a language – by observing and listening to their parents speak and imitating them. You won’t ever give a young child a book and expect them to talk only when they are reading the book? However, that is exactly what most piano teachers are doing when they start students on note reading from the very first lesson.

Also, students’ musical memory is gradually extended as they learn increasingly more pieces by rote. Playing by memory is an very important skill to have in playing the piano and playing by rote helps in developing this skill.

However, I gradually wean students off playing by rote as they progress in their learning journey as they can’t only learn by rote forever. They need to be able to learn by themselves independently which is why the next three skills come into play.
Playing by ear aka guessing games

Music is first and foremost an aural activity (even though strangely, as mentioned above, most piano teachers focus first on note reading). What it means is that music enters the ears, and the ear and mind then try to make sense of the music in terms of pitches, rhythm, timbre, etc. Playing by ear exposes a student to the different aspects of the musical sound and again, like a child imitating his/her parent on how to speak, the student learns to replicate what s/he hears.

A student starts off by playing very simple tunes but don’t underestimate the importance of being able to play those tunes by ear. Quite a lot of students can’t even do that after years of piano lessons.
Improvising aka doodling games

As mentioned earlier, it’s ridiculous if a child or an adult can only speak when they are reading from a book/magazine/website that is written by someone else. However, that is exactly how most students learn the piano. They can only play the piano if they are reading notes of a tune that is created by someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice and natural if a person can speak his/her own thoughts instead?

That is exactly what improvising is about. At first a student may feel like s/he is playing rubbish or something uninteresting. However, that is like the process of learning to talk. It takes time and practice to develop your voice and express yourself.

Note reading aka reading games

After a child has learnt to speak, the next thing to do is to learn to read which is exactly what we are doing here. Almost all piano teachers teach students to read the grand staff i.e. the treble clef and the bass clefs which are typically for the right and left hand respectively. However, I have a different perspective. Why not teach students to read lead sheets/fake sheets which comprise the treble clef and chord symbols.

The similarity of these two approaches are:

  • the melody of the tune is (usually) notated using the treble clef

The differences between these two approaches are:

  • with the grand staff, you are expected to play exactly what is written on the music sheet for both the right and left hand. There is little need for creativity here.
  • with lead sheets, you are expected to use the notes of the melody and the chords to create your version of the tune. In order to do that, you need to understand chords, music theory and how to improvise and even how to comp (short for accompanying).

As an example, when one million people play Happy Birthday using the grand staff, they will all play the same melody and accompaniment. What may diff among them is that some may play some notes faster, slower, softer or loudly.

With lead sheets, the one million people will very likely play differently from one another as they are required to play the chords and melody in a way and style that make senses to them. For instance, some may play Happy Birthday in a rock style, pop style, jazz style, classical style, etc. You get the idea.

However, learning to play lead sheets is not easy as there is a lot to master. Also, it’s harder to score candidates in examinations as more subjectivity is involved. Therefore, playing lead sheets are not provided for in all music exams (RIAM, ABRSM, TCL, Rockschool) other than perhaps upper ABRSM jazz exam grades and upper LCM jazz exams. In other words, if you/your child intends to go for exams in the future, or do music as a junior/leaving certificate level, learning the grand staff is a much safer choice than learning lead sheets.

Composing music aka music theory

Piano books to get

Method books

The Joy of First Year Piano

Sight reading books

Initial – Grade 2, Grade 2 to 5, Grade 6 to 8

Exam books

Trinity College London 2021-2023 syllabus

Instructions for Pieces

  1. Your teacher would have advised you the grade to attempt. Listen to the pieces for that grade on Youtube, Spotify, etc: Grade 6, Grade 7, Grade 8
  2. Make a note of the pieces that you like from each list (there’s list A, B and C). Identify at least one piece from each list.
  3. Check whether at least one of the piece you like from each list are included in the exam published book. If yes, get the book here: Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, Grade 7, Grade 8. Otherwise, you might be better off obtaining the sheet piece separately.

Instructions for technical requirements

[to be updated]

Music Theory Books To Get

Step 1, Step 2

These books are fun and delightful for 5 to 7 years old children or older children who find it difficult to focus. Stickers are provided with the book so this series work well for children who have limited writing experience. The presentation of the books feels like activity books which should provide hours of fun for children and learn music theory in the process. Upon completion of these books, students progress to Grade 1.

Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5

This is hands down the best music theory series for grade 1 to 5. Students should be at least 7 years old, perhaps preferably 8 years old when they start on grade 1. However, if an older child finds it difficult to focus and/or requires a game like approach to learning, consider the books steps 1 and 2 above.

Joseph has compared the contents of this series with other series and found these books to work with for his students. It has more exercises to reinforce learning when compared to the ABRSM and TCL series. The presentation of the material is well thought of, contains ample space for easy reading and writing and enhanced through appropriate colour. There are illustrations which aren’t childish. Even though the title claims that the books are for young musicians, I’m confident that older musicians will find them useful and helpful.

Grade 6, Grade 7, Grade 8

Having compared the theory of music syllabus of ABRSM, TCL and LCM, Joseph is of the opinion that TCL provides the most practical and reasonable syllabus for grade 6 to 8 music theory. Accordingly, when his students complete grade 5, they move to TCL’s theory of music syllabus.

Piano / Keyboard Recommendations

The MOST basic keyboard to start off with for the short term (below €200)

Casio CT-S300 (or buy from Thomann) – if you aren’t sure whether you/your child will continue with lessons in the future and you/your child just want to try it out AND you/your child is not learning classical music, I recommend Casio CT-S300. It has all features that I look for in a beginner keyboard – it is touch sensitive and you can attach a pedal to it if you need to. It should last your/your child at least the first two years of their music education.

Basic digital pianos for the long term (below €500)

If you/your child is looking for a basic digital piano that is for the long-term, here are my recommendations. If you have a higher budget, I would definitely suggesting getting a digital piano that is below €900 instead.

Roland FP-10 (or buy from Thomann) – go with this as a default for the most basic digital piano which should suit your needs for the long term. This is one of the digital pianos in Celbridge Piano school.

Korg B2 (or buy from Thomann) – Not as good as Roland FP-10 but better than Yamaha P45). Joseph used to have an earlier model of the Korg digital piano and he actually practised exclusively on it for this ATCL and passed with distinction! The speakers on Korg B2 is better than Roland FP-10 however Joseph prefers the touch of the keys on the Roland FP-10 which is the most important feature to consider when choosing a digital piano. To get an even better sound on Roland FP-10, you can play with headphones.

Yamaha P45 (or buy from Thomann) – get this only if you can’t get hold of a Roland FP-10 or Korg B2.

Digital pianos for the long term (below €900)

Roland FP-30X. This is one of the digital pianos in Celbridge Piano school. Joseph recommends buying from Thomann.

Casio PX-870 or Korg C1 Air. This is one of the digital pianos that Joseph would get if he’s getting the 5th piano for Celbridge Piano. Joseph recommends buying from Thomann.

Best digital pianos for the long term (above €1,000)

Yamaha Clavinovas – make sure you get one from the latest series. As of 2022, the latest series is 700s. The most basic model is Yamaha CLP 725. I suggest going with at least a Yamaha CLP 735 if you are getting a Clavinova. Joseph recommends buying from Thomann.

Kawai ES8 – this is a slab piano with amazing keys. Joseph recommends buying from Thomann.

Why buy Thomann?

Joseph and his students has good experience with Thomann. He personally has purchased four digital pianos, numerous keyboards, keyboard stands, percussion instruments, etc from them. The pricing is very competitive, if not the most competitive in Europe, there is free shipping if you purchase above a certain limit, and the return process is efficient if you are not satisfied with the purchase (but do double check the return procedures, don’t take Joseph’s word for it!).

I Actually Like Jazz Music

I remembered I was a teenager who’s fanatic about music. In my naive attempt to widen my listening experiences, I bought Bill Evan’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I didn’t like the album (and I still don’t). That album scarred me and put me off jazz for at least 20 years. I thought all jazz sounded like that – abstract and what’s the word? distant.

I recently pushed myself to learn jazz piano amidst a midlife crisis of some sort. I actually like Ahmad Jamal a lot. And yesterday I discovered Oscar Peterson which I like too. And today Dave Brubeck got me out of bed. My. I actually like jazz music after all! Not all of them sound like Bill Evan!