Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

Hoorah! I actually have Friday Favourites up this week 🙂  Enjoy some of the best of the web while you slob around (after you’ve done your music practice, of course!)


Posts on learning

The Fine Art of Page Turning (Cross-Eyed Pianist) – ““You read music! You play the piano! You must be able to turn pages!” is the cry I frequently hear, and while all these statements are true, many people do not realise that page turning is an art in itself…

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SONG CHOICE (We Need to Talk About Opera) – “It is now almost mandatory for there to be a classical vocal performance in a television talent show… opera is being broadcast into living rooms all over the world.

Starting Practice With Intention (The Musicians Way)- “The beginnings of practice sessions set in motion everything that follows.When we start with clear intentions, we accomplish more in the shortest time…

Posts on teaching

Teaching Unmusicality Part 1 (Music Teacher’s Helper) – “If, as our mythologies of human musicality suggest, Man is ‘naturally’ musical, where do these apparently ‘unmusical’ students come from? What can, and indeed should, we do for our apparently ‘unmusical’ students, and what, if anything, can they offer us as teachers?

Listening With Eyes (Music Teacher’s Helper) – “So why then can it be so hard to actually hear what you are playing whilst in mid performance?”

Posts about other things

You will only make it as an Actor if… (Bloody Hell Brennan) – “You know how to respond to the following sounds without even blinking: zip, zap, boing...”

Party (Don’t Shoot the Pianist) – “My girlfriend is an Italian model”

Essential Choices on BBC Playlister (BBC Radio 3) – “BBC Playlister allows you to keep track of the music you enjoy listening to on the BBC

Music in the News

What is “Kodaly method”?

If you have been looking around my website, you might have found a few references to the “Kodály Method”. You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d better explain!


Image from Wikimedia

Not so much what as who

The “Kodály Method” is an approach to teaching music (particularly singing) which was developed and codified by a Hungarian Zoltán Kodály. The method itself was not novel – it drew on a range of existing techniques and ideas. However, it was Kodály who drew all the previous work together and created a systematic approach to teaching music. His ideas still dominate primary music education in Hungary today, and they are gaining increasing recognition around the world. In the UK, Kodály’s methods are promoted by the British Kodály Association. Kodály’s method and the modern teaching of it focuses on using movement and physicality, teaching the sound before the symbol, and teaching centred around child development and good teaching practice.

Rhythm and Movement

In a typical Kodály-based lesson, there’s plenty of moving around going on. Teachers will use lots of games and songs that encourage participants to move in time with the rhythm and physically express pitch. This helps students to internalise the music – to hear it before they sing or play – which results in better performance.

Kodály drew on the work of Emile-Jacques Dalcroze who had already developed a music education methodology based on physical movement. Dalcroze practices are different to Kodály method, but they share this common emphasis on using movement to engage with music.

Sound before Symbol

The bigest difference between Kodály’s methods and traditional Western European music teaching is his emphasis on sound before symbol. This is very similar to the Sazuki tradition from Japan, in that beginners are introduced to a song by singing it, and then they are gradually introduced to the traditional notation as a secondary concern. For example, something which comes early in traditional music lessons is learning to name notes (A, B, C etc). In Kodály method, this comes very late. Instead, Kodály uses relative pitch names to help learners understand how notes relate to each other. You may be familier with them already – do, re, mi, so, fa, la and te form the major scale. Alongside these pitch names, Kodály method also uses rhythm names to help students read out rhythm in music. A crotchet is “ta”, while a pair of quavers is “te-te“.

Kodály borrowed his hand signs, which add a physical movement to changes of pitch from the American John Curwen. Curwen’s handsigns are widely used in American elementary music education separately from the Kodály method. You can see in this video an example of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star being sung with handsigns.

Finding a new logic

Kodály identified that children learn music best when it is taught in a way which is fun and logical to the child (rather than logical to the teacher). One example of this is using the minor third, called “so-mi” as the first pattern taught. This is the classic interval children tease each other with in the playground. Do you know the song Rain, Rain, Go Away? That song is almost entirely a so-mi pattern. From here, Kodály method builds to a pentatonic scale (play all the black notes on a piano in order to hear how this sounds). Similarly, rhythm patterns tend to be introduced in a way which matches folk songs and playground calls (6/8 before 2/4, for example).

Games and play are also core to the Kodály method, and activities use a variety of learning styles to make sure that everyone learns and everyone experiences the joy of music.

So, why Kodály?

I am quite new to teaching using Kodály principles, and I have yet to undertake any formal training. However, I have been using the Go For Bronze book produced by the National Youth Choir of Scotland for over a year with students, and I have never laughed so much in my life! I have already seen how the relative pitch approach makes so much more sense for singers, and this book develops sight-reading skills more effectively than any other book I have used (many of which take a very piano-orientated approach). I am really excited about the possibilities of working in this way to help children learn to be great musicians, and give adults the confidence to read music when they couldn’t before.

Five Tips to Make Your Practice More Effective

Struggling to get back into the swing of practice after the Easter break? Here’s five ways to make your practice more effective.

1. Make a date

Decide when you’re going to practice. Some people are routine practicers, but some of us need to plan it day by day. If you’re a routine person, pick that time and stick to it. If you’re day-to-day, decide on the next practice time at the end of the last one. I set myself a reminder at the end of my previous session for the time I can fit in my practice the next day.

2. Make a plan

Practice is always more effective if you have a plan. Do you sit down and flip through your books aimlessly? Do you only ever play the easy things? Or play everything once from start to finish? Make a plan that’s specific. My plans for my next practice are things like “run the first page until it’s fluent”, or “focus on the last eight bars working backwards from the last bar”. I write these down in a notebook and have that open and ready for my next session.

3. Small chunks

It’s easier to eat a steak if you cut it up, right? Practice is just the same. Break down each peice into sections. Usually phrases are better than bars, even for instrumentalists, as you want to develop a sense of continuity. Sometimes, of course, you have to break it down even smaller – that Bach run is much easier if you take three notes at a time! You’ll improve much faster if you can focus on one small thing at a time.

4 Take a break

Is it all getting too much? Are you feeling stuck? Take a break. Breaks can be different lengths. Sometimes, we just need ten minutes to regroup. Sometimes we need ten days to refocus. Breaks are good – your brain keeps on learning long after you stop practicing, so there’s no need to feel guilty. Of course, if you’re taking more break than you’re doing practice, you might want to think again.

5. Have big goals in mind

Where are you going? Why are you learning music at all? Big goals are really important. Are you aiming for music school? Or an audition for a local choir? Where you’re going affects how you’re going to get there. If you’re feeling unmotivated, why not spend your practice time answering the question “where do I want to be in five years’ time?” When you know where you’re going, write it down and remind yourself of it whenever you feel like you don’t want to practice.

What do you do when you’re struggling to practice effectively?

Review: Sing Musical Theatre

One of the things I had been intending to add in to my blog posts is reviews of new materials. Now I’ve finally been shopping, here’s my first review.




Title: Sing Musical Theatre; Wouldn’t It be Loverly? (Foundation, Grades 1-3)
Type of Material: Sheet Music with Backing CD
Publication: 2011 Faber Music
RRP: £14.99



I was delighted when I discovered this series as I have been looking for a “graded” approach to musical theatre songs for a while. Musical Theatre is dominated by vocal selections, or anthologies sorted by theme or voice type, rather than difficulty. This made it hard to give students a single text to buy. Thankfully, Trinity developed these volumes which help students up to Grade 5 work on easy but satisfying songs.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? has a good selection of songs, many of which are well-known. A good number, however, are taken from UK Youth Music Theatre productions which are less known. This could be a disadvantage, but I like that the book isn’t just the standard songs. There is a good range of styles and dates which means one could pull an LCM programme out of this book alone for the early grades.

This book is also an educational manual as each song has some background on the show, and tips on both musical and theatrical performance. This makes it a great buy for learners as they have reference material to support their practice. For LCM candidates, the information about the song is really helpful for the viva too.

The backing tracks too are good. They’re nicely paced (not too fast or slow) and have a fuller sound than just the piano, with some percussion etc where appropriate.

I would recommend this book to any beginner or teacher working with beginners. It’s not too condesending to use with adults either, and the inclusion of backing tracks really makes this a value for money choice.

Content: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Layout: ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Value for Money: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Overall: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Natural Inhalation (Breathing Like Normal)

Breathing upwardsMany people come into singing and discover they don’t know how to breathe. Well. Kinda.

For singing, you need a very specific kind of breath, one which makes use of your whole lung capacity on the way in, and which you can control as you breath out. There are lots of ways to control the air going out, but it’s hard to practice drawing in the air in the right way.

We can try lots and lots of exercises, but one thing is vital – we need to remember we do know how to breathe. We’re not learning a new skill, we’re refining an old one.

Our lungs want to breathe in, and one way to help improve your inhalation is to let them do what they do best. Here’s how to try the “natural inhalation” exercise:

  1. Breathe out as far as you possibly can. Force the air right out.
  2. Relax

It might take a couple of tries to be able to do #2. There should be no active action of breathing in: don’t try and breathe in. Just stop breathing out and don’t hold your breath. When you get it right, you should just feel  your lungs inflate of their own accord.

Vacuum bagIt’s a little bit like the effect of opening up a vaccuum bag which has winter clothes in. They just want to suck all the air back in. The inside of your lungs is made up of lots of tiny chambers, like the gaps between the fibres in your winter coat. Just as the air rushes back into the winter coat, so the air rushes into your lungs. Combine that with the work of your diaphragm which is constantly creating and reducing a gentle vacuum in your lungs, and you have a really good way to get air in and out of the body.

If you find this exercise hard standing up, you could try it lying down. Lie on a firm surface, and let everything relax. Pull your ribcage down by breathing out until it’s as low as you can manage it. Then just relax everything.

When we breathe in as singers, we want to get this mechanism working really effectively. An in-breath should never be forced, it should just be the air rushing in to where it really wants to be.

How about you? What have you found helpful for managing to control your breathing for singing?

(With thanks to Gillyanne Keyes’ The Singing Actor where I first read about this method of controlling the in-breath.)

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause

March marches to it’s end, and Easter is looming near. Are you working hard for an Easter concert this year, or are you in the middle of exams? Easter is a great time to catch some of the great choral works, so why not have a look and see what’s on this weekend?


Posts on learning

Process vs. product: are you along for the singing ride or just the final performance? (Chris Rowbury) – Some of us are interested in the outcome, others the experience. Chris discusses both approaches and gives some thoughts on how to enjoy both parts of performing.

Not an Optimist? How to Make Pessimism Work for You. (Bulletproof Musician) – Pessimists do some things better. Find out what they are and how to harness them to become a better performer.

How to Compose a Madrigal [Challenging] (MyMusicTheory) – Ever wanted to sound like a Renaissance troubador? Now you can!

The Number-One Motivator of Music Practice (The Musician’s Way) – No prizes for guessing the answer, but it’s good to be reminded of what it’s all about!

Posts on teaching

Using MTH creatively – Part IV – Emergency info + more! (Music Teacher’s Helper) – Here are some useful tips for keeping emergency contacts in Music Teacher’s Helper.

“Themes” Add Focus to Your Teaching (Music Teacher’s Helper) –  Some ways to bring new creativity to your teaching.

Posts about other things

Music in the News


How to Find the Right Choir

Evensong in York MinsterFinding the right choir for you can be tough, but as I’ve said before, joining a choir is a great way to improve your singing and musical skills. Here are five really important questions to ask yourself before you start looking at the myriad of options available.

How Does the Choir Learn the Music?

Some choirs use sheet music, while others learn “by ear”, or more accurately, “by rote”. Using sheet music opens up a range of more difficult (dare I say, interesting) repertoire than can be learned just by listening and repeating. It also means things can be learnt more quickly. If the choir uses sheet music, you will get a real boost in your sight-reading abilities. However, you want the choir to challenge you, but not leave you behind, so ask the director if you can find out more about what kind of repertoire you’ll be singing and how fast you have to cover it.

Do I Have to Audition?

A good number of choirs audition, and they auditon for lots of reasons. Some want to check if you can keep up with the sight-reading needed. Others might be looking for a particular vocal sound. The most prestigous will want the whole package. You might find a choir auditions sopranos and altos, but doesn’t audition tenors as they’re a bit short handed. The size of the choir will give you an idea of how difficult the auditions are to pass, and you should definitely ask the director what you have to do and how formal the process is. You might also ask how many people are successful, and how many are turned away too.

What kind of music do they sing?

There’s a choir for every genre of music, but the main types you find are traditional choirs (singing classical music usually with sheet music), pop choirs (singing contemporary music learned by rote) and church choirs (singing religious music, usually with sheet music). You definitely want to look for a choir whose music you enjoy, so why not go along to a concert or service to hear the choir and decide if you like the general kind of music they sing. You won’t like every peice, so consider the overview more than the specifics.


What kind of performance do they give?

The TV show Glee has led to a rise in the “show choir” in the UK. There are now more and more choirs who really go to town with their performances including dance and costume. Some choirs are more sedate, going for some swaying and clapping. Others are much more formal and just stand with book in hand. Think about what is most comfortable for you. You should be able to find out about this easily.

This is also the point to consider if you have any mobility or health issues that might affect your ability to stand still for a long time etc.

How much does it cost?

Some choirs are free. Some might even pay you to be part of them (church choirs, for example). Others charge a membership fee to cover the cost of the musical director and accompanist, hall hire and books. There may also be charges for loan of music or buying choir t-shirts. You should ask what costs are entailed, and make sure that you check about extras, not just the membership fee. If you do have to pay, ask about the arrangements for leaving the choir – do you get money back, or can you only leave at the end of a subs period?

Useful Websites

Here are a few directory sites that might help you find a few choirs to try:


Are you part of a choir? What kind of choir is it? How did you find it?

Friday Favourites

Take a friday pause


Good news, everyone! Normal service should be resumed from now on!


Posts on learning

How to Get Those Distracting Thoughts Out of Your Head When You’re Trying to Practice (Bulletproof Musician) – Did you know it’s normal to get distracted? It’s true! And, as a bonus, you can read some great tips on how to deal with those distracting thoughts too.

Never tell someone they can’t sing – it is brutal, damaging and untrue (Chris Rowbury) – Why we should be really careful what we say, and what the truth is about whether people “can’t sing”.

How Much Practice Should  I Do (Helen Russell Music) – A really great video that Helen’s found to remind us all how to do practice properly.

How to Compose a Mnior Pentatonic Piece (My Music Theory) – Ever wanted to try your hand at composing? Here is a step by step guide to writing a simple melody using a minor pentatonic scale.

Why You Should Be Hearing Music in Your Head (JazzAdvice) – What is it that makes the difference between playing and really making music? It’s the internal sense of music.

Posts on teaching

Ten Reasons Why “Music Teachers Helper” Pays for Itself! (Music Teacher’s Helper Blog) – Yes, I know it’s shameless advertising, but as a MTH user, I can vouch for how useful and effective it is.

How to introduce composing to Piano Students (Compose Create) – Here are some great ideas to get students making their own music.

Posts about other things

10 Best Piano Judging Comments (ComposeCreate) – We’ve all had bad comments made in exams and competitions, but here are 10 reminders that we often get really helpful ones too.

8 Tips on How to Behave at the Theatre


Ever wondered how you should behave at the theatre? Well, here’s a beginners’ guide based on my most recent trip to the Edinburgh Playhouse…


1. The overture is just background music. It’s just there so that you don’t have to talk to your friends in a silent room while you wait for the show to start. Same applies to the Entr’acte.

2. Letting your phone ring during the performance just adds to the music and makes the show more dramatic. There’s nothing quite like the tension created when everyone starts looking for the ringing phone.

3. Leaving your phone on vibrate creates a really fun game of “where’s that coming from?” for the people sitting around you to play during the boring bits. Everyone will really appreciate your efforts to make the show more interesting.

4. In a musical or opera, the spoken dialogue isn’t part of the show. It’s a nice pause for you to have a cough, or chat to your friend.

5. Everyone in the theatre loves to know what all the other people think about the show, so you should keep a running commentary going to your friends.

6. It’s really important to let everyone know that you have the best possible sweets by buying the ones we the really rustly plastic and opening them up at the quietist possible moment.

7. Moving your head around all the time means the people behind you get to have a nice stretch and shuffle too as they readjust to make sure they can see. You should do this regularly to help your fellow theatre-goers stay healthy.

8. If you have a really bad cough, it’s much better to let it all out. It’s really uncomfortable to hold back a cough, and your neighbours will be really glad they caught your germs because they didn’t want to go to work tomorrow anyway.

Ok, so maybe that’s not the best way to behave. Instead, here are some key tips that mean everyone in the theatre including you, the actors, the musicians and the rest of the audience are able to really enter into the moment and enjoy the show:

  • Listen to the overture and the entr’acte. Just because you can’t see the musicians doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect. Plus, the composer has constructed it to give you a flavour of the music to come.
  • Switch you phone off or to silent. Vibrate makes a really, really loud noise in a quiet room!
  • If you need to cough, talk or rearrange your position, try to do this at the end of a scene while nothing is happening, or during the LOUDEST points of the music.
  • If you’re coughing or sneezing so much you can’t do this, don’t go. Or at the very least, ask to switch seats to sit to the end of the row, so you can slip out to have a coughing fit and then sneak back in again.
  • If you must bring snacks, bring sweets which are unwrapped and preferably, switch them into a box before coming so you don’t even have to rustle the bag.
  • Remember, in the theatre, the actors are putting on a performance for you. Imagine if they were your sibling, parent or child – how would you want the audience to behave? Model that behaviour by being quiet and respectful during the show and applauding really loudly at the end.

What are your real bug-bears at the theatre? And is there anything you’d add to the list of good ways to behave?