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So You're Learning an Instrument. Great! Want to get good at it fast? Of course you do! Here's some tips that will really help.

1. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Yes I'm sure your teacher has already told you this, but its true! If you don't practice you will get bored real quick, cause you won't get any better! Get into a good routine of doing a little bit of practice every day (no you can't catch up on the weekend).
You need a set time each day and a quiet place.

2. PRACTICE WHAT YOUR TEACHER GIVES YOU: The pieces your teacher has given you might not always be that exciting but they are designed to teach you new things and make you a better player so practice these first every day.

3. ALWAYS PLAY SOME STUFF JUST FOR FUN: At the end of each practice or at any other time that you feel like playing, play over some old pieces that are easy that you really like, or work on a new piece that is fun.

4. IF YOU'RE GETTING BORED TELL YOUR TEACHER: Let your teacher know if you are finding it a bit boreing. Most teachers have a variety of modern songs and extra stuff that they can give you. If you want to play a particular song or style tell them this also. They can teach you better if they know what you like playing, most people practice stuff they like playing a lot more.

5. ALWAYS DO SCALES & EXERCISES: These are the stuff that other songs are made up of and by practicing them you will learn other songs much faster.

6. DO YOUR THEORY: Writen work helps you read music faster and understand what you are playing. This is really important so you can learn new pieces off the music without your teachers help.


ASSESS EACH STUDENTS LEVEL CAREFULLY: No matter what parents or other teachers have told you about a new student work out for yourself very carefully exactly where they are at. Check all the basics, Can they name all the notes of the staff?, Count & Clap a basic rhythm? Sight-read at what level? Play what scales? I have had students come to me who are meant to be at a grade 4 level (and their pieces probably are) that can't play any scales and have trouble with basic note naming and rhythm reading. The first time a student meets you they will play their best piece, keep in mind they may have been working on this for 5 months and be able to play little else. Don't assess level from this piece! Always start with something a level easier than where you think they may be at. It only takes one week for them to master a piece and prove it to be to easy but may take 5 weeks to find out a piece really is to hard. Check Everything - Assume Nothing!

BE FIRM WITH PARENTS: Once you have worked out what level your student is at and therefore what you will be working on, be firm with the parents. Don't ever let yourself be talked into entering a student for an exam you are not 100% sure they are ready for. Remember you are the one with the experience and the qualifications and these people are paying you to teach which includes designing the programme, choosing books and deciding when the students are ready for recitals or exams. Pick up as much useful information from parents as you can but don't be overcome by pushy parent syndrome, be firm and diplomatic, these parents above all else want their children to succeed, so tell them how this can be done and stick to it. I have a set policy of not entering any students for exams until I have been teaching them for at least 6 months and really know where they are at.

DESIGNING AN INDIVIDUAL PROGRAMME: Once you have assessed where the student is at make a list of what needs work to bring all areas of their playing to the same level. Make a further list of goals for the term, the new topics you want to cover. To design an individual programme for each student you need to find a method book or combination of pieces that covers the things on these lists. Keep in mind when chooseing books the age of the student, reading level, speed at which they are likely to progress, and the kind of music they have indicated an interest in. Always have your own copy of each students book so that you can prepare properly before each lesson and add supplimentary material where necessary to keep things interesting. I use a large variety of different method books from many different publishers and authors. This keeps my interest level up and also means that I have a large library of extra pieces to add to any book a student is working from. When a student finishes one book don't automatically go on to the next one in the same series. Assess the goals and requirements again and keep in mind that each author has their own strengths, weaknesses & style. By varying what the student learns from you expose them to the best of each author and make sure they don't get stuck into being able to play one style only.

SCALES, TECHNICAL WORK & THEORY: These need to be included in any programme of study. I have often had parents come to me with such phrases as "Johnny just wants to play some fun pieces" or "I just want him to be able to busk as quickly as possible". You need to explain to the parents that scales, arpeggio's, chords and technical work are the building blocks that the pieces are made up of. Without these no student will progress, that is why they are included in all exams. Even if they aren't wanting to play classical music they need these building blocks to be able to improvise, make up a new song and to help them learn the pieces that will be "fun" or "for busking". Likewise I insist that all my students do music theory with every lesson. The writing and understanding of music reinforces everything that I teach and is of use to any student if they switch instruments, take music as a subject at school, join a band, etc. I try to give students a general music education not just teach them an instrument as I know many of them may not keep playing for more than a few years and so the skills they learn need to be transferable.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST - PRACTICE: I Can't stress practice enough! There is nothing more frustrating than a student who comes to lesson after lesson with pieces not learnt and you have to teach the same lesson again. Firstly, talk to the parents the very first time you meet them about practice, how much the student should be doing and discuss with them what time in their routine might suit. I also stress to them that if a student doesn't practice they won't really progress and will probably get bored and quit. Secondly, I always use a practice record book with a space for me to write down what the student is to practice and a place for them to record how long they practice for each day and for their parents to sign at the end of the week. If a student doesn't seem to be practicing and isn't progressing don't leave it a week or two hopeing it will get better, talk to the student, if the next week isn't better talk to the parents without delay. Watch out for students who have natural talent and progress quickly without much progress, they are the most likely to not get into good practice habits and quit when they hit the point where they can't go any further without some work. This is really frustrating as you often lose your most promising students. Here also the practice record book will give you a good idea is they are covering the work with little practice.


Students who learn easily by ear often don't develope note reading. Don't always play new pieces to your students first, let them work it out. Do regular sight-reading exercises to keep a check on this.

Students learning the new pieces by the finger numbers or following up a step, down a step. Make them read the letter names of the notes outloud. Students who do this can often play a piece perfectly well once you tell them what "position" its in but are unsure where to put their hands to begin. Give exercises or pieces that involve using a variety of different fingers on different notes. Ask them "What letter name is it?" and "which finger does it say to play that letter with?"

The Student can play a piece well but only at a very slow pace and no amount of effort seems to speed it up. This piece is probably to hard for their technical development. Go back a step, make up scale and technique exercises out of the piece.

Here are a few of my personal teaching resources that you might find helpful.  Check out my Links page for more music resources available on-line including music software games, online flashcards, on-line metronome, I-Pod Aps, etc.
Scale Practice Charts:  I use these scale practice charts with all my grade level students (even if they aren't sitting exams)  These make sure a student is covering all the scales in the exam syllabus every week.  The charts break the scales up into groups, the student then only needs to practice one group in depth each day rather than trying to practice all the scales each day and probably not really repeating any sufficiently to improve.  By the end of the week they will have practiced each scale several times, with more repetition of new scales for that grade, and less repetition of scales from previous grades.

Trinity Guildhall Scale Groups Grades 1 - 5 (.pdf)

Piano key lettername flashcards

Learning the correct order of #'s in a keysignature is much easier if you use an acronym.  I have come up with "Father Christmas Gave David An Empty Box" and also found another one that I loved on another website "Ford Cars Go Dead At Every Bump".  Below are some flash cards you may also find useful for learning key signatures.

Keysignature Flashcards (pdf)

John Williams - Composer of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and many more - Handout (.pdf)

Instruments of the Orchestra (4MB pdf)

Rhythm Cards - A set of A4 cards with 8 rhythms on each level.  The students play the rhythms on one note or on a scale.  I have laminated a set of these so that students can write the counting underneath using an overhead pen and wipe it off again.

Counting Rhythms #1 - Basic Notes

Counting Rhythms #2 - Basic Notes & Rests

Counting Rhythms #3 - Ties

Counting Rhythms #4 - Quavers

Counting Rhythms #5 - Quaver Rests

Counting Rhythm #6 - Dotted Crotchets & Syncopation

Counting Rhythm #7 - 6/8 Time & Triplets

Counting Rhythm #8 - Semiquavers

Counting Rhythms #9 - Dotted Quavers

Counting Rhythms #10 - Harder Rhythms

Counting Rhythms #11 - Hardest

Theory Swat Notes for the new Trinity Guildhall syllabus. 

Grade 1 Trinity Guildhall Theory Revision Notes

Grade 2 Trinity Guildhall Theory Revision Notes

Grade 3 Trinity Guildhall Theory Revision Notes

Trinity Guildhall Grade 4 Theory Revision Notes

Trinity Grade 5 Revision Notes

Trinity Grade 6 Revision Notes

Trinity Grade 7 Revision Notes

Trinity Grade 8 Revision Notes

Harmony Rules for SATB (Grades 5 - 8)

Flashcards for Musical Terms & Signs for the new Trinity Guildhall syllabus.  A few of the cards are blank on one side so that you can draw the appropriate symbol.

Grade 1 Trinity Guildhall Terms & Signs Flashcards

Grade 1 & 2 Trinity Guildhall Terms & Signs Flashcards

Grade 3 Trinity Guildhall Terms & Signs Flashcards (.pdf)

Grade 4 Trinity Guildhall Terms & Signs Flashcards (.pdf)

Grade 5 Trinity Guildhall Terms & Signs Flashcards

This Harmony Slide Rule is a quick easy way to work out the notes of chords I - VII in any key, saves a lot of time when working out cadences and longer harmonizations for advanced theory.

Harmony Slide Rule (.pdf)

Aural - Melodies to help Identify Intervals (pdf)

Common Questions About How to Practice - Handout for parents & students (.pdf)

7 Tips to Get the Most Out of Music Lessons - Handout for Parents (.pdf)

Report Form/Template (Word Document)

Chord Charts (.pdf)

Rhythms for Improvising Chord Accompaniments (.pdf)

Simple Arpeggio's (Finale Viewer)

Arpeggio's starting on black keys (Sibelius Scorch)



RHYTHM RODS:  These rhythm rods are great for smaller children who don't easily understand fractions as well as for advanced students working on correct grouping for different time signatures.  Placing the notes into groups that equal the length of a beat or a bar makes grouping rules so much easier to understand!
You can make these from cardboard or make more solid bulding blocks like mine.  My father is a kitchen manufacturer and the white board they use on the interiors of kitchen cupboards is strong and inexpensive.  He simply cut a piece of left over board into 1 inch strips and then divided each strip into halfs, quarters, eigths, etc.  It only took about 15mins so even if you had to pay for the time and board they would still be a cost effective resource.  I then drew notes on one side of each block and rests on the other with a permanent marker.  My blocks measure: semibreve 8", minim 4", crotchet 2", quaver 1", semiquaver 1/2", dotted minim 6", dotted crotchet 3", dotted quaver 1 1/2".  You will need to make extras of some of the smaller notes so that you have enough for every combination.  When you draw on the semiquavers and quavers make a variety of beam shapes (like in the picture above).  You may also want to make some blocks with time signatures on. 

MUSIC MAT:  Having a 5 line music stave on the floor that is large enough to stand on each space or line note is a great way to learn music notes and concepts.  This is especially valuable for learning concepts of up & down/high and low and steps & skips.  To physically walk through the music alphabet or to skip from one space to the next jumping over the lines can be of great benefit to students who are struggling with learning to read and write music!  My mat is made from a sheet sewn in half and electrical tape stuck on to make the lines.  You could also use a plastic sheet and permanent marker, or simply have masking tape or pieces of strings or fabric that you lay out on your floor.  I would love in a brand new studio to build this pattern into the floor tiles!

I Find flashcards invaluable at almost every lesson to teach new notes & check recognition of old notes. I encourage all parents to purchase a set for at home.  Students should be able to name the notes as fast as you can turn the cards!  Students who don't know their notes learn very slowly, have trouble learning new songs and get bored and quit!  


HAL LEONARD PRACTICE NOTEBOOK: I have found these practice notebooks invaluable, they are small, inexpensive and have room to write each weeks work to be practiced, music stave for any exercises and a space for each day of the weeks practice time. Don't be shocked when you first see your pupils practice times and realise even your best students don't practice as much or as regularly as you would have thought.


PIANO ADVENTURES SERIES:  This is by far the best series of method books I have ever used for teaching piano!!!  In the past I have always used a combination of many different method books, picking and choosing to suit different students needs, ages and to get a variety of music styles, technique, theory, etc.  I didn't think it could be done, but this method really DOES IT ALL!! It has replaced many of my other books!
Why do I love it so much? 
*  Its fun! All the lesson books come with CD accompaniments and the songs cover a wide variety of styles including clasical, jazz, blues, rock & picture pieces that really capture in sound a mood or theme.  The authors really are fantastic composers, the tunes are catchy and yet I don't get sick of hearing them.
*  Piano Adventures is based on a very sound teaching methodology that stresses the importance of good piano technique from the very beginning (something older methods stressed and many newer ones left out!).  The black key approach at the begining of the primer book ensures that students can find letter names all over the piano and this combined with use of different fingering ensures students don't get locked in to thinking only in set hand positions, a fault of many other methods.
*  The series is written by teachers who understand how children of all different ages think.  The explanations and examples are given in language that is both creative to capture interst and also very age appropriate.  Many other method books leave explanation of theory and technique to the teacher which means it isn't in the book to go over a second time at home or for a parent who wasn't at the lesson to read over.  For teachers these explanations are great also, I have learnt many new ideas and ways of explaning things!
*  It covers everything!!  Technique and Artistry books give more in depth exercises and studies than there is room for in the lesson books.  The Theory books are a real treat as they also incorporate Sight Reading & Aural exercises!!!  Both of which as teacers we struggle to fit into regular lessons but are vital to steadily develop and are key components of most exams.  I have previously adopted a more serious approach to theory and not used theory books that go along with a piano method, but these I am using with the lower levels and am seeing great results in all round musical development.
*  Popular Books - At each level there is a wealth of supplementary material including popular books with beautiful arrangements of well known movie themes, hit songs, jazz classics, etc.  These are really up-to-date including music from Harry Potter, Lord othe Rings, Mariah Carey, etc.  Some of these are published under the titles Pre Time, Play Time, Show Time, Chord Time, Fun Time, Big Time which correspond with each level fo the Piano Adventures series.
*  For all ages - I have now used the Accelerated Beginner books for the 9 - 12 age group and am even more thrilled with the Adult book.  The pace of learning is perfect for each and the adult book takes a much more overall conceptual approach to introducing new ideas.  Almost all the songs in the adult book are tunes the student will know, drawing on their musical background in complete contrast to the Very Young Beginner book where mood pieces (e.g. songs that sound like a Horse, or a Juggler) will be more enjoyed by the age group.  Singing along is something 5 & 6 year olds will naturally enjoy and so the Very Young beginner book has a CD which sings the lyrics.    


LUDOVICO EINAUDI is the composer of some of the best piano music I have ever enjoyed listening to and playing!  I love being able to give students something to play written by a current day composer.  Einaudi's music is breath takingly beautiful, thoughful, deep, energetic, melodic and written for a grade 4 - 5 level!  The notes and rhythms are not hard to learn, but putting in the feeling and expression requires a big leap in technique and musical appreciation for most of my students.  If you haven't heard of Einauid search him out on the net or go and buy and album.  His music has the unusual quality of being incredibly relaxing background music and yet when you really listen to it with the volume up you learn something new every time in the way he develops his melodies.  My favourite songs are 'I Giorni', 'Bella Notte' and 'In un Ultra Vita'.

Faber publishes Trinity, Alfred & Waterman

WATERNMAN PIANO LESSONS - This series is the best classical piano method I have found. It systematically teaches the scales & technique through varied exercises, required to play each piece of music. It is incredibly thorough and excellent exam preperation.

Alfred Top Hits Solo's

ALFREDS BASIC PIANO LIBRARY - TOP HITS SOLO'S (Levels 1A - 6): These really have been a HIT with all my pupils. Standard Classics, Disney Themes, TV Themes, Broadway Songs and all very recent. Each Level is extremely well graded, and each book progresses in difficulty from beginning to end making them excellent supplementary material. Songs include: Beauty & The Beast, Titanic Theme, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Mission Impossible Theme, Axel F, Edelweise, Rubber Duckie, Nadia's Theme, Popey, Can you Feel the Love Tonight, A Whole New World, The Adams Family Theme, . . .


JAZZIN' ABOUT:  Pam Wedgwood is one of the UKs best known teacher/composers and pieces from this series of books are regularly used in Trinity Guildhalls examination syllabus' for both violin & piano.  The songs are written in a variety of popular styles including: jazz, blues, rock & funk.  The melodies and chord patterns are catchy and the tunes have a familiarity when you hear them, like you have heard it before, or at least something very similar!  This makes the songs instantly appealing to students while at the same time the composer has incorporated a wealth of technical development and interesting rhythmic patterns.  The Series includes Easy Jazzin' About Piano (Grades 1 - 2), Jazzin' About Piano (Grades 3 - 4), After Hours Jazz (Grades 5), Really Easy Jazzin About Violin, Jazzin About Violin, After Hours Violin (with CD), and heaps more for other instruments, duets, etc.  You may also want to check out Pam Wedgwood's 'UpGrade' Series specifically designed to bridge the gap between exam levels (e.g. Upgrade 2 - 3). 


THE FIDDLE TIME SERIES:  Fiddle Time Starters, Fiddle Time Joggers, Fiddle Time Runners, Fiddle Time Sprinters & Fiddle Time Scales books 1 & 2.  I am continually amazed by the wonderful creativity of teachers to compose songs for beginner students who can only play a few notes!  They sound like complete songs from the very beginning!  All the books except the Fiddle Time Scales have backing CDs recorded by the composer with groups of live instruments and they have a very 'real' feeling like you are playing along with a group of other students.  The songs are lively and catchy!  You can start with the Fiddle Time Joggers or for younger students use the Fiddle Time Starters as a preparatory book first.  The teaching method is sound, introducing 1 new finger at a time and thoroughly working with it across all the strings before introducing the next finger.  The tempo (speed) of the songs and difficulty of bowing, string changes, etc places a strong emphasis from the beginning on developing musical ability, control of tone, and performance technique, rather  than just learning new notes.  Several of the songs in these books are included in the current Trinity Guildhall Violin syllabus at grade 1 - 3 level.  I use the Fiddle Time Scales books with all my students regardless of what method they are learning from.  Each new scale is introduced with the scale written out in full, the arpeggio, and a finger diagram that is left blank for the students to fill in the letters.  A new rhythmic pattern is also introduced at the bottom of each scale page.  Then on the facing page, there are 1 or 2 short songs using that key and rhythms.


ABRACADABRA like all the other violin methods I recomend comes with a play-a-long CD.  For young violinists to be able to attain good intonation (tuning) they need a reference point, something to compare there performance with and see if it matches!  To an untrained ear a song can sound ok and like it is in tune, but then when you play it with the CD most students can easily hear where theirs doesn't match what is on the recording!  Abracadabra is a "popular" method made up completely of well knwn tunes, nursery rhymes, film & tv music, etc.  It is an actual method book introducing each note and new tehcnique one by one, not just a collection of popular songs.  Songs include:  Mary Had a Little Lamb, Lightly Row, Hot Cross Buns, Flintstones, Edelweiss, Part of Your Wolrd (from the Little Mermaid), Beuaty & the Beast, Roses from the South, Old MacDonald.  Older beginners and adults especially like to play tunes that they already know!


STRICTLY STRINGS:  Books 1 & 2 of Strictly Strings have an accompanying CD.  This is a great standard violin method!  I use book 2 with most of my students before sitting a grade 2 exam.  Each page introduces new concepts of fingering, bowing, or performance at the top, and then gives several exercises to teach these.  This is usually followed by 2 or 3 short songs incorporating this same material.  The songs are a mixture of classical themes and well known traditional tunes.  These books also have several performance pieces that are full length songs with a duet part for a second violin.  The books are also available for Viola, Cello & Double Bass making full orchestra parts for these performance songs.  My favourite song is "Classical Bash" which is a medley of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, Haydn's Surprise Symphony, and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, stuck together with the recurring theme of Beethoven's 5th Symphony!  This series also has other supplementary books with orchestra and ensemble pieces that I have found useful for my four violin string quartet.


TAKE THE LEAD is just one example of the various play-a-long albums available for solo isntruments.  These kinds of supplementary albums get students really inspired to play for fun!  The backing CDs usually have 2 tracks for each song, 1 with the violin playing and the second as just a backing track, ideal for busking and other performances.  Each series has a variety of albums, some of the ones I have seen are: Movie Hits, 90's Hits, TV Themes, Christmas, Abba, Blues Bros, Clasical themes, etc.  Encourage students to go to their local music shops and find albums like this that they are interested in!



THEORY FUNDAMENTALS is the BEST!!!! Theory method I have ever used!  The downfall of most theory books is that they teach a whole chapter on just one topic at a time with very little revison of topics already taught.  I often have students that get to the end of these books and have forgotten the earlier topics, or do a whole topic wrong and then i have to find extra exercises for them to practice to fix the problem!  Theory Fundamentals introduces 1 small new thing on each lesson page and every lesson has an exercise on each of the topics learnth so far e.g. writing a scale, writing or naming intervals, a rhythm question, a transposition, a harmony question, etc.  With this type of gradual learning and constant revision students reach the end of the book confidently ready for the tests at the back of the book without extra need for revision.  The gradual approach allows topics to build over a series of weeks rather than in just 1 chapter which allows me more lesson opportunities to discuss difficult concepts.  The method books are also printed a modern and attractice format that is appealing to students.  The only sad thing about this series is that they only go up to grade 3!!