TTTV050: Teaching Patterns with Jo Burrows - Creative Music Education
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TTTV050: Teaching Patterns with Jo Burrows

By Tim Topham | Aural

Jul 23

teaching patterns

A big part of Dr. Gordon’s Music Learning Theory is pattern based teaching. When we build up a rich vocabulary of patterns we’re creating a mental resource that students can draw from later. This way students can not only read music but can audiate and improvise as well. In short they’re more comprehensive musicians.

Joanne Burrows

Joanne Burrows is the head of keyboard at the Riverina conservatorium. Lately, she has been teaching patterns to her students to make their learning more secure and durable. When I heard about some of the fantastic methods she’s exploring in her research, I knew I wanted to have her on the podcast during Music Learning Theory month.

Jo has some great tips for getting reluctant singers singing, building a sense of rhythm, and making improvising more accessible. You’re sure to find something fantastic in today’s episode that you can implement straight away.

Transcript

Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. Alternatively, click below to download a PDF. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can find the full video and transcript in the Member Resources Area. Not a member? See below for how you can get $50 off your membership today. 

In this episode, you’ll learn

  • The different types of patterns Joanne uses in her teaching
  • Why it’s important to start teaching patterns
  • How we can use patterns as a foundation to build on later
  • How Jo’s rhythm books are structured and sequenced
  • Some creative ways to practice rhythms in lessons
  • How Jo encourages singing in the piano lesson
  • Why you should milk every exercise until it’s dry
  • Where Jo starts with bass line patterns

Links Mentioned

Podcast Video

piano teaching education

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Thank you for Tuning In!

There are a lot of podcasts you could be tuning into today, and I’m grateful that you’ve chosen mine.

Being a full-time teacher myself, I know how busy teachers are and how much time, effort and passion we put into our students. Sometimes, the last thing we want to do in our time off is listen to more piano teaching stuff! So, well done for using this time for self-improvement.

Whether you’re at the gym, on the bike or in the car, I know that you and your students will get lots out of what you learn in the long run. Just make sure you try out some of the ideas before they get lost in the business of your next lessons.

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How are you going to be teaching patterns this week?

Which idea of Jo’s are you itching to try out? Which do you want to implement right away?

Did Jo’s approach to improvisation appeal to you? What did you think about how she teaches rhythms?

Full Transcript

Tim: So Jo, welcome to the show today.

Jo: Thank you, Tim. Glad to be here.

Tim: Well it was so cool catching up with you again at the MTAQ conference in Brisbane last weekend. I hadn’t seen you for a couple of years, and found out the latest things you’re doing. I always knew you’re a fabulous teacher, obviously. And a composer, but when you started talking about all this great improvising and panel work you’re doing, I thought, “Aha, got to get you on to the podcast,” because this is exactly what we’re talking about this month with regards to the music learning theory stuff.

So before we get around to that, can you give everyone just a quick summary of the kind of teaching you’re doing or you may be composing at the moment. What does your day look like?

Jo: Thank you, Tim. Well, I’m currently Head of Piano at the Riverina Conservatorium of Music. I have about, probably 40 students. They range from, beginner, all the way through to A-MAS, L-MAS. And I’ve got a university student. So I’m doing a range of different things, and I also do music craft theory lessons, and secretly recorder on the side. So in between all of that…

Tim: We won’t tell everyone about that. Oh, and it’s already out.

Jo: In between that, I am composing, but I have also just started my masters with CQU. A lot of the work that I’ve presented at MTI was in relation to the kind of things that I’ve been doing, and then researching how that’s playing out in teacher practice across Australia.

Tim: This is what I love. Anything that’s research-based, I’m there, and that’s why this whole music learning theory stuff, which has all the research to back it, sits so well with me, even I’m still learning how it works myself, and I’m still kind of working out how I can incorporate it.

But when you can put research behind something it’s like, “Why aren’t we doing this?”

Jo: That’s right.

Tim: If we know it works. So anyway, let’s talk today, my focus really is going to be about patterns. One of the key kind of features as you know of the music learning theory is use of patterns, and particularly students being able to audiate. So hear in their head and imagine the sound, and be able to chant and verbalize and just know patterns.

Now, I think I should probably say, for all the music learning theory peers who might be watching this, I understand that Dr. Edwin Gordon who came up with it, had a very specific set of patterns and ways of vocalizing sounds and things like that. So I realized that what we are talking today might not fit that. However I know that for a lot of teachers completely revolutionizing everything they do to teach is not going to be the way that we go. So I’m really advocating a concept of, well if this concept of learning about patterns is important, and we realize that, then what are some of the ways we can incorporate it, even if we’re not a fully trained and experienced music learning theory teacher. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

Jo: May I comment on that?

Tim: Hm-mmm.

Jo: I think it’s really important that we constantly, as teachers, challenge ourselves; read, talk with other teachers, and be informed. So that we don’t slip into, religiously adhering to one particular kind of teaching because we have many kinds of students. So I think the pattern-based work I do anyway is one of the strategies in my arsenal of teaching. So I use it a lot, it usually works with every single student, but the way in which I use it may vary, how often I use it may vary, that sort of thing.

Also, I think it’s important to understand that there’s lots of different kinds of patterns, because there’s rhythmic patterns, which I think are the biggest thing that students fail to internalize and learn to recognize, because they don’t count. There’s acoustic patterns in the right hand, melodic fillers, left hand patterns which are chordal-based, melodic-based. So there’s a whole range of different patterns, and then patterns in the actual physicality of the movements.

Tim: Absolutely, there’s a lot. I’m going to try and cover each of those today in this conversation which I’m really excited about. I might just get you… Are you able to angle your camera down a little bit, you’re kind of on the bottom. Yeah, that’s better, heaps better. Fantastic.

Okay, so let’s get into it. We’ve kind of talked about these patterns, we know there’s a lot of different types. Why is it so important for students to learn patterns?

Jo: I think it’s important for students to learn patterns for two reasons. One is, I’ve been doing that research, looking at the Vygotsky kind of concerts, which is basically looking at building on prior knowledge. So there’s no point laying a foundation for the student if we haven’t got prior knowledge to build on, and so, patterns provide the first of that foundation.

Tim: Okay. Who’s the Vygotsky you’ve mentioned? Can you spell his name so we can look him up.

Jo: V-Y-G-O-T-S-K-Y. I have to write it.

Tim: I love that you’re writing on your piano for those who aren’t watching. She’s writing it on the piano. Obviously, a visual or kinesthetic learner of some sort.

Jo: Actually, auditory, but yeah [inaudible [00:05:33] is not my first language. So, he’s one of many. Kodaly did it instinctively with a lot of the stuff he did. But just… it’s the current kind of thing that’s driving education in school, so it marries nicely with that. But I think it’s just important that patterns are important because we get that pattern secure, and then we can build the next pattern on that pattern.

The other little discovery, I guess, that I made was that students were actually reading music by going T-I-M-T-O. So they were reading note by note. That’s not how we read a word. We don’t read a word letter by letter, we read it as a whole thing. So when I saw that they were doing that I started talking to them about what they were doing, and then started looking at how we needed to transfer that into as many patterns that they can recognize. That meant that students who couldn’t sight read before, now can.

Tim: I’ve often mentioned this that the most important thing for sight reading is to be able to recognize blocks, patterns, chunks of music, rather than have to read word to word, or sorry, letter to letter.

Jo: Yes.

Tim: Absolutely. And it was interesting, I interviewed Neil Moore of Simply Music in our last episode, episode number 49. And he was talking about how the brain is wired to find patterns. And it is, we recognize patterns when we see them. So if we’re not helping our students put that into a musical context, I think we’re missing out on a huge learning opportunity.

Jo: Patterns are how we make sense of the world.

Tim: Okay. So, we should probably talk about some examples of patterns in case people in going, “I don’t even know what a pattern is, like what is this?” So, can you give us some examples of a pattern? What’s a rhythmic pattern? Might be a melodic pattern.

Jo: All right. Well, one of the first things I do once they have the figure strength and agility, so they often can do it if they start learning as teenagers, is I teach them the triad, that triad pattern, and the chord. And you can do that in a variety of ways [music] or [music] Any combination of things. But I don’t just do that on C, I then do D, and then E, etc. Just white notes to get the five, three, one, and the one, three, five in the right hand going. Just giving them like a kinetic… I call it a kinetic vocabulary, so that before I look at anything to read, they’ve got a knowledge of that, and it’s easy then to explain what the chords are, get them to rearrange the chords, and get just that triadic pattern going. And once they’ve got that, I then can introduce them to, say the visual symbol of that.

Tim: Okay. I was going to ask, yes, so you’re not doing that by reading, you’re just doing that by, “Here’s a shape on the piano, this is what it looks like, this is what it sounds like…”

Jo: Yep.

Tim: “…let’s explore it.”

Jo: Okay. That’s exactly right. I don’t try and ask… if they are very, very gifted, I might say, “Can you find the note? Play it.” But usually, I’m quite happy for them to watch and copy, and some kids are very good at that, and could do it very quickly, and others not so. But the best thing is, they actually go home and practice it, and that was something I meant to say before.

One of the other things I think happens, is because we don’t use patterns as part of our teaching, and because we don’t always build on what they already can do, they’re in the lesson, and they do it, and they say, “Yes, I understand it.” But then they go home, and they can’t. And then they come back and say, “I didn’t do that because I forgot.”

Actually, what happened was, they had nothing to link it to, to remember. Now, I actually relate to that because that was me with Maths at high school.

Jo: And now that I’ve been using this particular thing and started my research to back that up, it makes sense. And now that I’m doing that, I’m finding, I might actually sit maybe a little bit less for them to practice, but they do it because they’re kind of addicted already because they want to get it right.

Tim: Hmmm. And we’re going to see how you put some of these into a musical context later, which I really… that’s what I really enjoyed about your presentation.

What about rhythmic patterns? Are they kind of getting kids to go, “da-da, da-da-da,” or clap, or what do you do?

Jo: What do I do? I do a lot of Kodaly style stock in terms of just echoed clapping. So I think there’s a real lack in their memory. And I don’t move past certain points. So if they can’t do [clapping] absolutely accurate, no point going forward.

Tim: So give me a demo. I’m the student, you’re the teacher, what would you get me to do?

Jo: [Clapping] Go.

Tim: [Clapping].

Jo: Okay, now if you were unable to do that, that accurately, I would stick with that vocabulary.

Tim: Until they…

Jo: [Inaudible [00:10:53] That’s right. But then I marry that with what’s in their repertoire, with rhythm drills. So I’ve got these starts here, I’ll just show you, account. And so, it starts when they’re little, “Firefly, firefly flying in the night,” so they can use words.

Tim: Okay. And would you do that vocally with them?

Jo: Yes, yes. Even my… I’ve got a bunch of singers that can’t read, that are wanting to learn that sort of thing, learning to read and be a bit more musically literate. The singing teacher here has sort of said, “Please do something,” and they love actually saying it. And it real helps them.

Tim: Yes, I think it does.

Jo: I use this… I have a variety of strategies which probably every teacher uses. I use words, I use rhymes, I make up rhymes, I use the Kodaly Ta-Tee-Tees, I use counting one N, two N. I get them to count while I clap. I count… everything. Just a couple of minutes in the lesson doing that, maybe then doing it on the piano, [music], you know? And then I would… depending on what else we’re doing. But doing that, once that’s really accurate, then just showing them those symbols, and then getting to read those drills.

Tim: Yes. Absolutely.

Jo: No pitch, just the drills. This is in the beginning stages. When they’re older, I put all of that together, of course.

Tim: Yes.

Jo: But…

Tim: Sorry to interrupt. I was just going to say, I’ve been having more and more success, as part of my community actually, a number of the members of my community have been really proactive in getting me to do more singing with my students.

Jo: Oh, very important.

Tim: Because I’ve kind of put up my hand, and said, I wasn’t asked to sing a whole lot during my lessons. I don’t think… I hope my teacher isn’t listening, and she’s like, “Yes, you did.” I don’t remember doing it. I’ve got a good voice, I can sing it all fine, but I’ve never really pushed my kids to sing, and I teach a lot of teenage boys. I’ve always been like, “Ugh, I don’t think they’ll really enjoy it,” but the more I’ve done it, and the more I’ve normalized it, and it’s really only been this year that I’ve been doing it, the easier kids find playing things.

I’ve had some real success with this, I’ve got to recommend it. If they’re having trouble with the rhythm, I just get them, “Let’s sing it,” vocalize it in some way. It doesn’t matter what syllable you use, just go “Dah, Da-daa, daa-daa,” or whatever it is. Do you have the same…

Jo: Absolutely. I always say to the students, “It’s my magic trick. It’s my secret thing, and I can’t explain how it works.” But whether they’re beginning, or right up to their Almas [SP], once they sing it, they play it differently.

Now, here’s a couple of hints, I do teach a lot of boys too, and I find if I just make it non-negotiable and I just say, “Okay, we’re going to sing this. If you don’t want to sing, you can ‘Dah'” So I’ll start singing, and I’ll be going “Dah-dah-dah,” and within that lesson or several weeks, they’re in pitch.

Tim: Yes.

Jo: And this is including the two boys whose parents said, “They can’t sing because they inherited my voice.”

Tim: That’s helpful, isn’t it?

Jo: So, I think that’s really important. Yesterday I had a little girl who’s very shy, and I said,”Okay, we’re going to clap this.” And she went, “No,” and I said, “Let’s do fairy claps.” And I did little invisible ones on her hand, and that worked, and I did the same with the singing. I said, “Let’s do fairy singing.” So you just need to kind of think a little bit of, if they’re resistant of how to do it.

Tim: Yeah.

Jo: And always… Can I just say to teachers out there? Always sing with them, always. And if they’re having trouble pitching, they’ll pitch to your voice before they’ll pitch to the instrument.

Tim: Okay, that’s interesting. I haven’t sort of picked that up before.

Jo: Oh, it’s absolutely true. And, so you know…

Tim: I suppose it’s the tremble of the human voice, perhaps we’re more matched to it, yeah.

Jo: Yes. And that’s a Kodaly thing, if you do some research there. He found that out, I wish I could claim credit.

Tim: Yes.

Jo: But, the other thing too is, for those doing IMEB or other exams where they’ve got those fairly esoteric exercises, there’s no point just starting those there, because they’re just…

Tim: You mean the oral tests?

Jo: Yes, they just give up before they start because they know they’ve got it wrong, it’s too hard. If you don’t lay this groundwork, you’re going to be doing an uphill battle. But if you do lay this… Even for the six year olds, play two notes, sing the low part with them, sing the high part, and then they just do it, and it’s not an issue. So singing is absolutely the way to go.

Tim: I think of course one of the big problems we have here in Australia with regard to the exams, is of course everyone’s focus is on scales and pieces, and not the oral work. And so this idea of pitch recognition, listening, rhythm, all gets left to the couple of weeks before the exam, and it’s always disaster, kids hate it, when it could actually be quite productive. And it is important. So that’s why I think it’s great that we’re talking about it, because, let’s say… In fact this could be my next question, I guess.

Let’s say I’ve got some students doing their grade 2 exam later in the year, and I’m listening to this podcast right now. And I understand this concept of patterns, but I don’t know where I could start. I’ve never done it with my students before, so what would you suggest they do? Let’s say, just in rhythm, to help them with that oral test that pretty much every example it has where a rhythm is played, or a melody is played, and you have to clap back a rhythm.

Jo: Okay. Well I think that I would start with… this is where I wrote the… I don’t want to ply my ways, but…

Tim: No, I’d like you to mention your books because I’ve looked through them. I’m a big believer, and actually, we’ve got a special offer to offer our listeners about them. So let’s talk about them.

Jo: Okay, the reason I wrote them is because I kept having to write out little rhythms for them to clap, or for me to remember to clap. And because there was nothing… there’s bits and pieces everywhere but nothing sequential. So I started with that basic pattern of the “Ta-Tee-Tee” pattern, which is the easiest one, and I just basically wrote 40 pages for what the basic bits, and that’s with rhythms and rhymes. So on the first page they can say it, on the second page it’s just auditory. You clap it. They clap it. They read it, whatever you want to do.

So that develops a memory and the pattern recognition. And then the next book’s another 40, it’s the next step, that’s Clap and Count. And then, Rhythm Rocks is the next one. And then, Death by Rhythm is the next one. And then I’ve got extreme rhythm that I’m just about finished. And it’s basically one page per week for 40 weeks of the year.

Tim: I’m losing you off the camera, just watch out.

Jo: So, that is… I guess, me having done the work, if you want to just say, “I want a sequential, secure workable thing that builds in the right sequence for the students, rather than just random things. So once I get good at one pattern combination, then the next one comes in, and then the next, so by the time they’re at, say, Clap and Count, or Rhythm Rocks, they’ve got most of the things up to second grade, triplets, semi-quavers, dotted quavers, semi-quavers. They’ve got all of that, and you can play them on a note, you can play them on a scale, you can clap them.

I also have Ear Before Eye which does the same thing, but it covers each aspect. So it has rhythm patterns, it has phrases, it has intervals, it has lower parts, it has everything. Again, instead of waiting until whatever grade it is that they… You know I think it’s grade 3 they introduce the low note, I have that starting when you start, and I show how to make it work so that by the time they need to sing a more complicated part, they’re familiar with the intervals of the lower voice and they can just do it. And then I know what works because it came out of my practice.

Tim: And look, we’re going to tell people where they can find your books which are available for digital download towards the end. If teachers don’t want to buy any books, totally fine. I guess the process would be to do some research into something like Kodaly, K-O-D-A-L-Y, if you haven’t heard about it. And look online, I’m sure there’s some introductory worksheets on rhythms that you could download.

Jo: Absolutely.

Tim: And I guess my approach has been, tell me if you think this is the right idea, with one of my beginners who I started this year. At some stage during lesson, I mix up lots of different activities on and off the bench. One of the activities, we’ll chant patterns at each other, or we’ll clap patterns, or I’ll do something like you did before [clapping], he repeats it, and then maybe he’ll take the lead and I’ll repeat it. Or we’ll have a conversation, we’ll not tap the same theme, we’ll kind of converse. So I’ll go [clapping], and he’ll go [clapping], or something, I don’t know. That kind of thing.

Jo: I think all of those are great, and you just need to keep varying them and experimenting with them. And you’re right, there are some really good resources online to download, and I probably have bought nearly every single oral book there is in existence in an effort to find a cohesive… but what I wanted, this is why I wrote them, what I wanted was something that I didn’t have to keep trolling through to find, that I could just go through.

And also, and I might mention, this might be something… it’s easy for me to do it at a Conservatorium. I actually have music crafts, or musicianship classes. So all the oral theory, composition, and stuff like that, that gets done in those classes, which frees up the lessons to just work on the other parts of your performance practice.

So that’s another reason those books are good because we just rattle through one, one page per week, and that is brilliant. But there is no reason, if you’re in private practice or even in a community, to get together with a couple of teachers and go, “Right, I’ll do the rhythm unit. You do this, you do that,” and you just say there’s a lesson happening on this time. It’s this much for the term, and have five… probably up to 10 would be my maximum. Gets a bit done really after that.

Tim: Yes.

Jo: And just do these skills once a week that way, because that’s another option. And it’s not an expensive option for parents because you got 10 in the class and that’s $8 a lesson, or something.

Tim: I think you’re absolutely right with regard to online versus buying a book, that’s already been organized. You can find much of the stuff that’s in your book I would assume, if you troll the internet for long enough, and have a look through all the books, but you can just go to someone like you who’s put it all together.

Jo: Thank you.

Tim: And go, “Bang! There’s the secret for learning.”

Jo: Yes.

Tim: And I also like the fact that your books go right up to, what we call, year 12, in Australia, it’s the final year at school kind of training.

Jo: Well, actually into first year uni.

Tim: Well, there you go, into first year uni. Actually all the teachers… Jo, I’ve got to tell you a story. Jo was presenting at this conference and I was in the audience with about… there’s probably about thirty teachers, and Jo made us… she popped a rhythm pattern on the board, and got us to do a bar each as we went round down the lines of people watching, and it was an utter disaster, it was so bad.

Jo: It wasn’t even a hard one.

Tim: No, I know. I’m so embarrassed because… I just… I don’t know, people were half asleep probably. It was the first session in the morning, but it was enlightening.

Jo: I couldn’t come in on the beat. You know, when I would come in on the beat, or they clapped it too fast, or whatever, you and I were pretty thrown.

Tim: And on the research I’ve done on the music learning theory, the idea is that there is no break in the pulse. So once a pulse is set, and the teacher, let’s say they audiate the pattern, the students have to do it, teacher will have their hands up like this, almost conducting, I think. I hope I’m not wrong in this but they’ll go, “Do- da-do-da-da,” and I’ll conduct the class in, and then I have to come in straight away. And just back and forward, without losing a beat.

Jo: That’s another thing that reminds me, another important thing I think with all of this, is to I guess milk the exercises until they’re dry. So, for example, if you’ve got something very simple, this is just an audio cast, isn’t it?

Tim: No, video and audio.

Jo: Okay. So if you… I’ll just see if you can pick this up. So you’ll have something simple like that, can you see that?

Tim: Yes, I can.

Jo: Okay, then “I’m a Little Teapot” rhythm. Once I can do that accurately, there’s still a lot more you can do. You can do what I did, which is passing it along like a relay race. But you can also put the metronome on, and do it very quickly, moderately, and very slowly, and show them how that changes because I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, but as soon as my students that are well drilled, or before I started doing this, see a joined pair of notes, they go [clapping] because they just think that’s the quick bit, and it’s a set speed for that. So they’ll be going along, and then they’ll see a fast one and do that. And that’s because they haven’t really understood that it’s not quick, it’s just quicker in relation. But once you put those metronome pulses on it, you then get that problem solved, and it does take time, so you got to do it a lot.

Tim: Yes, Marilyn Rowe was talking about that exactly in episode 48.

Jo: Oh, beautiful.

Tim: In regards to a particular… particularly dotted crotchet quaver.

Jo: Oh, always anticipate.

Tim: [Clapping] This kind of rhythm, and the fact that can look, that pattern can look different but sound the same depending on the time signature, depending on the speed, all this kind of stuff. So you’re absolutely right. That’s why, again, drilling, and doing at a different pace as the speed, tempo I should say, is so important. Totally with you there.

Jo: In fact, the 40 pages I’ve got in each book could last many, many more, or even be… once they’re out of one book, you go back to the other and do it in a more complex way.

Tim: Yes. That sounds good.

Jo: So there’s a lot of… don’t be in a hurry for a lot of new material, because the more you use what they know in varied ways, the better they get at the pattern recognition, because again, if you’re using what they know, but you’re helping them put it into new context.

Tim: Got it. Okay, so let’s talk about melodic patterns. How do you approach this one?

Jo: Melodic patterns? For the right, mainly right…

Tim: For right hand, let’s talk about, yes. So, I guess melodies rather than bass lines.

Jo: Probably the standard way most people do, again, building on the triad [music], so once they know that, they can usually recognize… I get them to practice recognizing where that is in pieces. If a piece is using it either downwards [music], or upwards [music], being applicable, “Oh, that’s just the F chord.” And even in inversion, if it’s there like that, I’ll say, “Okay, now think about this. Do you know what that chord is? Let’s play around.” And once they know that those notes are in F chord, they don’t have any problem with that reading. So that’s one thing, then of course the steps, [music] the lines, bass line steps. So the steps and skipping work very well. And then that combined with your patterns of scales and piaggio [SP] or triadic movement covers most of what you’re going to get happening.

Tim: In paces, yes.

Jo: That’s right. And then, what I always do, I usually start with bass lines because I find that works better…

Tim: Yes, this is what I love, because I haven’t seen other people present about bass lines. I’m a massive fan of it, I talk about it in my piano teaching course because it’s so crucial. Tell us about it. I’m just going to turn my heater on, by the way. I’m starting to freeze. Melbourne’s got down to below 10 degrees now. I’m still listening.

Jo: Okay, so I kind of started music rather late, and I had been improvising and writing music before I even went near a teacher. So I had all these really bad habits. But one of the good things that came out of it was I sort of… when they’re saying to the teacher, “I don’t want to do classical music, I only want to do popular,” and she went, “Okay.” And then I got so frustrated, she said, “The only way you can get better at this is to do exams,” which probably isn’t true.

Tim: So that’s definitely not true.

Jo: Back then, she was so far out of her comfort zone. But I did fall in love with classical music, and I did do rigorous training there. But because of that I think I always start with bass because, one, it will be the thing they forget about, the thing they ignore, and usually the weakest read. But if you get those patterns learned first, that gives you the anchor of your music. And it’s really the foundation. So I will tend to, “Do you see a chord progression? Do you see that coming back?” And once they’ve got that, they can kind of let that go a little bit, because usually it does follow patterns.

In the right hand however, or predominantly melodic line is in the right hand. In that however, I will always… I do this funny thing when we’re learning a new piece, and it’s something I have to attribute Hamish Tait [SP], the director. He’s my boss here. He and I work together on a piano class every week. We kind of devise this together, so I can’t just say it’s my idea, but if they’re learning a new piece, and this does take time but the results are incredible, because their reading is better, their practice is better, they go forward quicker.

They’re learning a new piece, I will… we will sit and we’ll look… We’ll basically analyze it before they touch it. Now most people will clap the rhythm, and I’ll look at the key signature and that sort of thing. But we do more than that. We will look at the patterns. “Okay, there’s an ascending pattern. Is it anywhere else? Okay let’s find all those bars. Oh look, this looks the same, what’s happening? Oh, it’s up an octave.” Those sorts of things.

So we’ll do all of that, with each hand and then playing it on our laps, haven’t touched the piano yet. Singing it, hearing where it is, clapping it, this is not in order of course. This is just the things that we… usually clapping is early. As I clap, they’ll often start to hum and you’ll be surprised to how accurate they become, so they actually start singing. And then, depending on the student, right, left hand from memory, without having played it.

Tim: Yes, it’s…

Jo: Right? And then put it together, and then they go home, and what they do with the music is they use the music where they can’t remember a link or dynamic, or whatever.

Now that has revolutionized it for us. I supplement that then with easy pieces that use all the patterns in that piece.

Tim: Right. Okay, yes.

Jo: So they are at the moment gleaned from a range of places, but they are going to be the formation of my thesis, because for my master’s, I will be producing a body of work of piano stuff that will kind of revolutionize, I hope, how we do things, providing resources that teachers can just get a handle on, and that are very cheap to get, you know?

Tim: I can’t want to see this research. I was going to say…

Jo: Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, totally. It’s got some similarities with Paul Harris and his simultaneous… Have you heard his Simultaneous Learning Concept? Definitely look him up.

Jo: Oh, I will.

Tim: It’s the same idea. He advocates taking the ingredients of pieces, which he calls the patterns, the rhythmic shapes, the keys, all the elements that are going to come up. Drill them with the students, get them to write them, get them to read them, all this kind of stuff before they start learning a piece. Then they put the piece in front of them and like, “Ah, okay that’s that, that’s that. Oh, yeah. Easy, right?” So, same kind of approach. Why aren’t we doing that more? It’s…

Jo: I’ll tell you why. It does seem to take longer.

Tim: It does take longer. It takes more thought. You’ve got to prepare it as well, right?

Jo: And it’s much… the kid has to think.

Tim: Yes. But I think the teacher has to think.

Jo: Well that’s true too, but the student has to really remember and think. So there’s no road memory. A lot of students like the idea of just playing it over and over and over, and then they remember it, because they don’t think they’re thinking. Problem with that is that they usually have mistakes. This method, you can actually play it without a mistake for the very first time if they’re thinking properly. So what you’re doing is asking them to think, and varying degrees of success happen with that depending on the student.

Tim: That’s great. As you say, you’re forcing them to think, prepare, before to actually play it. So hopefully when I play it, they get it right. Bravo, we’ve got it. We’re on the right track.

I don’t know, we’re going to run out of time if we’re not too careful. We could talk about this for ages, I know. I just want to go back to left hand patterns. Can you give us an example of some of the left hand patterns that you use?

Jo: Okay. You were particularly interested in those jazz line, bass lines, weren’t you?

Tim: Well, I’m interested… I mean, that’s what I experienced, you working with us, with, on. But you might have other ones, I don’t know if you teach kids what a tango pattern is, or whatever. [Inaudible [00:33:25] bass is.

Jo: So that one there.

Tim: Just pull it back a bit. Yes, so that’s called, “Making my own music.”

Jo: Yes, that one there is best as a teacher resource. Sorry, you can’t see me. Students can get it, but it does end up being a better teacher resource. And in it, I break everything down for the teachers. So I have a lot of patterns. I have at the back, for example, over 50 ways to play a chord, and the idea is, the teacher teaches that to the student orally, and they do it over different chords.

So for example, if they want to do this one, [music] they could do it all white notes, up and back. They could do it all major, [music] or minor. All dominant sevens, all major sevens. And they get this whole thing. And every pattern is like… can be done like that. And it could be [music], that kind of thing. So, depending what… And the idea is there’s even blank paces for them. I mean, I actually originally had a hundred, but I thought, “Might be nice for the teachers and the students to come up with their own.”

Tim: For sure. Yes.

Jo: Rather than me just giving it all to them. And I’ve even did that for left and right hand fillers. You know, [music] that kind of thing. Then I broke down… I do have a tango-like pattern in the beginning where they can do [music] and [music].

Tim: I just like tango patterns.

Jo: All sorts of things. But the idea is, that the teacher doesn’t just limit to the four or five I’ve got.

Tim: Okay, yeah. And then, so lets’s say they can do the [music], they’ll learn that pattern. Do they then try and play something with their right hand with that or something?

Jo: I would start with… for example, in this book here, on page 11 I’ve got this, just blank space with the chord above them.

Tim: Can you show us quickly.

Jo: Sure.

Tim: Okay, so you got… looks like a lead sheet, isn’t it?

Jo: A lead sheet.

Tim: With no melody.

Jo: There’s no melody or bass because I didn’t want them being distracted by it. And then I’ve got suggestions. Practice in block chords. One, two, three, four, one, two, three four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.

Keep it in right position at starters, but depending on what you’re developing, they might be quite advanced, and you’re going, “Everything’s got to be first inversion.” Then it tells you what you can try. On thing could be just octaves in the left hand, chords in the right. [Music]

Okay, let’s put the tango. [Music]

Sorry. That kind of thing.

Tim: Yes, that’s great, yeah. I was actually just thinking in my head, “How cool would it be if there was a book where there was a list of patterns on one page, and then a whole way of playing them on another page.” And that sounds like what it is.

Jo: And then I did that with the… a lot of kids like to do jazz.

Tim: There goes my next book idea. Thanks, Jo.

Jo: That’s okay, Tim. [Inaudible [00:37:07]. There’s the jazz…

Tim: Just up a little, yes.

Oh yeah. So that’s this one. [Music]

Jo: I just identified a few, really common ones. And I gave them names, so I could say, “Do this one, do that one.” So that I call the “boogey bass,” obviously. This is the lazy bass [music]. And then you can put chords over the top of that. The blues bass, I called [music]. The rocking bass, rock blues bass, I call them [music]. Western jazz bass, I call this one [music]. You know, that…

Tim: Along the country road.

Jo: Just a simple walking bass [music]. You know, that one. A vent bass, just for crotchets to make a kind of a ostinato. [Music]

Tim: Yes, well that’s a rhythmic and melodic pattern.

Jo: Yes. Boogey bass [music], walking bass in quavers [music]. Just that basic one to start with. And then a ragtime vent. You know, that kind of thing, which you can then change to octaves and whatever. But then, what I do, is they might practice, say that lead sheet there.

Tim: Just up a bit, again. Yep, cool. Okay, so again, lead sheet, just chord symbols with nothing written on the stave, yeah.

Jo: So they might do… [music] you know? Do that, and when they can do that, and fiddle around and just put block chords, then I might say, “Okay, let’s see which of the basses fit with this little blues and bass.”

Tim: Okay, so now we’ve got a lead sheet with a melody. So you’ve got chords, melody, and you go, “Okay, you’ve learned a whole lot of left-hand patterns, which one’s going to work?”

Jo: That’s right.

Tim: Love it.

Jo: And I actually start with… can you read it with the block chords together? [music] It’s just… it’s very simple. So once they could do that, then I say, “Okay, which one’s going to work?” Now some kids will have to try it out, but the smart ones will go, any… it’s got an E flat going to an E natural. So the best one will be [music] because you don’t get the clash.

Right? And then, they’d put that together. You can even just get one kid to do it, and another kid to do something else.

Tim: I love it. Yes. It could definitely work in group lessons, too.

Jo: And so, that’s the… that’s the book, and it’s got a few examples for students, but it wasn’t enough. So I wrote… because that’s hard to get the right music that’s legal. So, just wrote this sort of thing.

Tim: Oh yep, okay. So, this is a disco piece now.

Jo: Yes. So, this is in the anthology.

Tim: Right, yep.

Jo: And you can download these pieces individually. So disco, it might be [music], you know? But then you can say, “Let’s try some of the other patterns, etc.” But the one on the previous page [music].

Tim: So all you’re giving on the music is the chord and the melody, right?

I love this, because it’s so creative and it’s so musical. The students have to listen to what they’re doing, have to go, “Oh, does this sound right now?” It gives them ownership of what they’re doing. I think it’s great. I can’t wait to try this out.

Jo: And it also gets them reading their right hand really well. But the other thing you can do… See that one, I showed you that one because it was more of a ballad style. So they can use their broken chords, but then you can say, “Hey, what about that new piece of note that you’re doing? Why don’t we try making it like an Alberti bass?” [Music]

So they’re taking it out of context, using it somewhere else, and solving problems that maybe you can’t… you know how often they’ll have a problem that you can’t solve, but you put it somewhere else, fix it, and put it back in, and it’s like… you know?

Tim: And that’s the importance of making connections, which I think is vital for effective kind of teaching, yeah. Making connections with things I know, other things they’re learning, things they’re listening to on the radio.

Jo: Yes. And that… this tries to mock that. And it has quite a…

Tim: I think you mean replicate, or copy, not mock.

Jo: No, mock.

Tim: They do? Okay.

Jo: Copy in a fun way. No, replicate. But you know, because it’s got jazzy ones, and it’s got like kind of sort of vampy ones, [music] you know those sorts of things, for kids. It’s got a whole range of things that they’ll go, “Oh, that sounds a bit like…” And I know I sort of put suggestions on what you can do if you’re really stumped. But what you’ll find is, you’ll just… you and the students will just come up with new ideas all the time. I can’t even…

Tim: And so what you say to some teachers who are like, “I’ve only got 30 minutes with my students. They’ve got an exam in November. I can’t do this. It’s too hard. It takes too much time.”

Jo: Well I think that if the student is so focused, and so motivated to do that exam, and everyone’s happy, and the student is playing, and reading, and functioning as a musician, well, fine.

My experience would tend to say that that’s rare, because if you’re only doing that, one of two things happens. They often will be able to do their exam pieces, but not much else. Or, they will hate it and quit. But there are students where they really are focused. And I do have some like that doing A-MAS, but even then I’ll say… You know, like I play at church for example, and I’ll say, “Here’s our latest song. Why don’t you try and play it?” Because at church you only get a lead sheet.

Tim: Yes, that’s right.

Jo: So, you know just for some… let’s do something fun. So I tend to find that it’s just important to make sure that music stays really relevant, and that they can function. And so, I guess I’d said to teachers, “You need to think about what you want for your student, but you also need to think, maybe discuss with them what they want.”

What do they want? Do they want to be able to sit down and read perfectly about a Bartok Concerto? Do they want to be able to sit down and read a popular chart? There are very highly trained classical musicians who can’t read a popular chart well. Is that what the student wants? Is that what… If they say, “No, I don’t want to do this,” then fine. But if they say, “No, I want to do everything,” then maybe it’s time to think about how you could incorporate that.

Tim: Yeah. And I think we have to ask ourselves, “What do we feel is important for our students to be able to do?” Because sometimes they won’t necessarily articulate it. If they know nothing other than learning exam pieces, they won’t know that there are alternatives out there.

Jo: That’s exactly right.

Tim: And my point would be the fact that I want to build musicians who love music for life, as I know you do. I want them to keep playing after they’ve finished school. I want them to be able to accompany “Happy Birthday.” I want them to play for carols, play for their church, play for school, accompany musicians. They can’t do that by just reading music.

Jo: Hear a piece of music on the radio and figure it out.

Tim: Exactly. That’s…

Jo: If they want to.

Tim: That’s what’s important to me.

Jo: Whether it’s classic or not. And I guess, the other thing I’d say is, if they’re doing an exam in November, and you’ve only got 30 minutes. One, what grade is it? Because if it’s above 4th grade, it should be 45 minutes. And if it’s above 6th grade, it should be 60. Two, it’s August, I would be thinking that their pieces need to be learned sooner. And three, what I do find, is if I match these improvisation pieces to something like what they’re learning, they will go to the piano and play that, and then once they’re there, they’ll often play the other things they need to do. So from that point of view, I think it’s a win-win.

Tim: And again, if you make those connections to the pieces they are learning, then it should be helpful, not a hindrance.

Jo: Yes.

Tim: So I’d look at any of this kind of creative teaching as something that is not wasting time, or taking time away from the important things. It is the important things.

Jo: It is. It really is, it really is. And I think that often exams are used as a motivator, like that’s how, the fear thing. But I’ve got friends who say quite honestly, “When I learned piano, I did nothing and then I’d find out it was four weeks till the exam, and I’d cram.” We know better now, you know?

Why don’t kids… why don’t students practice? There’s another thesis which I wouldn’t mind doing, but I don’t have time. But I think we all know. And I think there’s a few reasons. One is, they actually don’t know what to do. We’ve talked about that with patterns, and we’re preparing their practice better. Two, they’re too busy. Now that’s something that we can’t control, and we need to have conversations with them and their parents about. Or three, it’s too hard, and they’re not interested because it’s too hard. I remember students, when I first started out, saying, “Oh, I hate this bit. I hardly practice at all because I’ve got to learn the right hand then the left hand. And I hate reading, but once I can play it, I love it.”

Well, that means you’re going to spend at least a term where the student doesn’t do anything because they’re not at a place where they love it. So cut to the chase and go back and give them things they can do straight away, and make smaller building blocks to get to that place.

Tim: Yep.

Jo: So that would be my thing because mostly, once they can do it a bit, then you can’t keep them away from it.

Tim: Yep. It’s empowering, isn’t it?

Jo: Even in a lesson, I’ll give a student just a reading exercise, like we talked about with the patterns, and I’ll know that it’s going to go home with them. Oops, sorry.

Tim: You’re still there?

Jo: I’ll know that it’s going to go home with them. I don’t know how to get back on to full.

Tim: That’s all right. I can still see you. We’ve got to wrap it up in a minute anyway, so…

Jo: Sorry, something just interrupted.

Tim: That’s okay.

Jo: I was saying that, I know that it will go home because they’ll go, “Oh, can I do it again?” And you’re like, “Okay.” “Can I do it one more time?” And then it’s like, “Well you did play it very well.” “Oh, but I want to do it,” because they got it right with one mistake the first time. You know that’s not too much, but when they can’t even hardly do it, you know that that’s not going to be a positive thing at home.

So I think there’s those three things that you can talk about in terms of practicing exams, and that would be helpful.

Tim: Well look, as much as I’d love to keep talking, we’re going to have to wrap up. We’re almost at an hour. It’s gone like this as always when I talk to people who have similar, share our similar ideas and things.

It’s been fantastic, Jo. So we better tell people where can I go to find out more about your, firstly. And then your music.

Jo: Okay, so I am on two websites. One is the Riverina Conservatorium of Music website. If you Google “Riverina Conservatorium of Music Wagga Wagga,” that will…

Tim: So, everyone in the States is going “Wagga Wagga? You Australians are crazy.”

Jo: You’ve actually been there, Tim.

Tim: I know, it’s a beautiful place.

Jo: You know, you will be coming back. So that would be one place, and the other is the Wirripang, if you just Google “Wirripang Australian Music,” then I’ll be on that website, and all the digital downloads, etc., will be there as well.

Tim: Yep, Wirripang, W-I-R-A-P-A-N-G. And in the the show notes for today’s episode, we will put links to the books, the URLs where you can download these books that Jo’s been talking about. And they are all very kindly, on behalf of Wirripang, who is the publisher, listed a 25% off, so the price you see there on that website for download is 25% off. Thank you very much to Jo for letting us do that.

Jo: My pleasure.

Tim: That’s great. And I hope some teachers will take advantage of that. That will be available for, I think, a few weeks anyway. I haven’t got the final dates set but this will be going live around the middle of July. So you’ll have most of July if you’re listening to this at that time to check them out. If not, they’ll still be up there, they just won’t have the discount price.

So Jo, is there anything that you’re just itching to say that we haven’t commented on today? Or was that a pretty good summary?

Jo: Tim, it was a great summary. And the thing I’m itching to say is thank you so much for the opportunity, wonderful to chat. I just get such a buzz out of talking to other teachers who are experimenting and finding the same things that I’m finding, and the little different angles that you find, and then you can add that to what you know. So I really… it’s just an absolute thrill to be talking about all these things with you, and being on the same page.

Tim: Yes. That’s great and thank you very much for sharing your time with us today, and your resources. I can’t wait to look at them myself. I grabbed a couple of copies when I was up there at that conference. I’m going to try to… I’ve got a couple of students actually who… I think this is going to work really well with, so, maybe I’ll have to get you back on to do a bit of a summary when I’ve tried them out, and we can chat more.

Jo: Well, you’re definitely going to. I have to come to APPC in Adelaide, so I can get you to show me what sort of things you found.

Tim: Actually, that’s right. We were talking… talking, maybe we should do a combined thing, won’t we?

Jo: That would be brilliant.

Tim: Yes.

Jo: I think we can do some pretty amazing stuff.

Tim: That’s the Australian Piano Pedagogy Conference, or convention, which is in Adelaide in July next year, 2017, for those who are looking to come along, more information about that will be up soon.

Jo: We have had people from the US and the UK come, so you’re totally welcome.

Tim: Absolutely, yes. All right, Jo, I think we better sign off there. Thank you so much again for your time, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Jo: Okay. Thanks, Tim.

Tim: All right, bye.

 

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.