Casio Workshop for Piano Teachers

Come and see me and get in for cheap!

Fun-Games-Front-CoverSince Launching Fun, Games and Party pieces I have been really pleased with how versatile it has proved to be in my own teaching. I added chord diagrams to each tune for family members to play along on different instruments, or teachers who like to work with chords like me.

The book functions well enough as a collection of fun pieces for beginners, but also has real scope for opening up the world of harmony for teacher and pupil alike, starting a journey that will ensure a deeper understanding of all the music the student will encounter in their future.

There are so many things you can do with these chord diagrams, giving students the ability to use chords, harmonise and understand harmony right from the beginning.

Excitingly, I’m going to get a chance to demonstrate these techniques in the Casio workshop for Piano Teachers this coming September.

I am looking forward for this chance to show other teachers how I use my own music in my own lessons, but also I’m really looking forward to being a part of this all-day workshop.

I’ll get the chance to learn about using digital technology in lessons to great effect, try out the latest digital pianos, hear straight from the composer of ‘All That Jazz’ about teaching Jazz and other modern styles, get help with how to promote the best posture for my students, find out how to run a ‘practice-a-thon’ and try out the new elegant and versatile footstool for young pianists.

Come and join me! The organiser has very kindly allowed me to offer a discount to my friends. Click the link below to enjoy a discounted rate of £24.99 for the whole day.

piano workshop discount

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He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

I recently realised that ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ would make a wonderful two-chord song for beginners and wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

worldIt was a song we sang at school right at the start. Reception age, when memories begin. I have memories of other songs from that time, I’m a little teapot, I quite liked the gentleness of Kumbaya. In particular I have a strong memory of finding the tune of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ moronic and feeling very disgruntled at being made to sing this and clap my hands in affirmation whether I actually felt happy or not. (I never did like ‘forced jollity’ and I suppose this song is the embodiment of that!)

I really was happy when we sang ‘Whole World’, and that feeling as a small child is what I associate the song with. I don’t remember it that clearly, but I remember loving it. There’s something about the rhythm that sets it apart from other songs, something that forces you to swing it and move like you’re in a gospel choir.

Put all that with the fact that the structure is easy to grasp instinctively and only uses two chords. A perfect recipe for happy music-making.

This is the structure throughout-

Whole world table   –  or  –

whole world harmony(see an explanation of harmony writing here)

At my last Big Fat Music Party, we played it as a group in C to suit the piano and ukuleles, and the guitars played it in A with a capo on the 3rd fret. Here are the charts –

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands uke

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands guitar

The pianist played ‘um cha’ on C and G –
um cha c root          um cha g inversion 1
(She loves playing this to accompany herself singing).

Because of the gospel feel, I took this opportunity to get people to practice clapping on beats 2 and 4, to the right and then the left. A great exercise which lightens and brings music to life, rather than the dull, lumpy clapping on 1 and 3 which seems to come naturally to us white Europeans, I’m afraid!

There are various different verses, I have put a selection of popular ones in the charts. You can always make up your own. Nina Simone sang, ‘He’s got the gamblin’ man in his hands’ in her achingly beautiful slow chordal version with the sublime descending basslines. Not a two chord version, that one. It changes chord on every beat. I was once asked to write down all the chords to this version, so you can have it too.

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands Nina Simone version

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Mairi’s Wedding

Mairi’s Wedding is a gorgeous folk song that is a real delight to sing and play. I chose it as one of the numbers that everyone would play together in my most recent Big Fat Music Party because of its beautifully easy chord structure. It consists of the following three chords which repeat throughout the song. We played it in D, which was a good key for all our instruments and voices.

Mairi's Wedding table
Mairi's Wedding harmony table(see an explanation of harmony writing here).

Here is the sheet music, tune line and chords-

Mairi’s Wedding

On the day we had two Guitars, two ukuleles, three people on the piano (one playing chords, two playing the melody) one fiddle, a few percussionists and lots of singers.
My great violin-playing students (I normally teach them piano) who are brother and sister couldn’t make the party, but when we were working on Mairi’s Wedding in their lesson, they came up with this brilliant easy double stopping accompaniment based on the rhythm of the first two bars. It sounded great when they played it together (one on tune, one on accompaniment, then swapping over).

Here it is-Mairi's Wedding fiddle harmony

I love that the D never alters even on the A chord, creating a compelling drone.

Before the party I videoed some of the lovely West London Folk Band (led by the brilliant Laurel Swift) playing the song so that my students could listen to it in the week.

Here is our rendition at the party-

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Pick a Bale of Cotton

The group tunes for this term’s Big Fat Music Party were all tunes recently rediscovered from my past. ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’, a work song from the deep south made famous by Leadbelly, is a great one that I remember singing in a guitar group I used to attend as a child.
It is a two-chord song which can be played with one chord if necessary. Very repetitive and quite addictive to sing!

The chord structure consists entirely of the following four bars repeated.
Pick a bale table

We played it in E to suit the guitarists but you can easily put it in any key. It uses chords I and V. The key of C is good for ukuleles and the piano.

Here are the charts:-

Pick a Bale of Cotton in E for guitar

Pick a Bale of Cotton for in C ukulele

E is possibly the worst key for the ukulele, so I tuned the older players’ ukes up into D tuning (A D F# B) and they played it with D and A7 shapes. For the tinies, I tuned their ukuleles to an chord of E (G# lowB E highB) so they could strum freely. It sounded rich and banjo-like.

I recommend teaching the song with one chord at first, and then adding the second when they can play and sing it fluently.

This is a good simple ‘um cha’ pattern for the piano – um cha

We played it in E, so I gave our pianist a super easy version –
um cha E

When planning to get people together to create a band on the day, it’s essential to give them things to do that are easy enough for them to play without much effort so they can listen to what’s going on around them as they play, and react with other band members.

This song is great fun as you can make up your own verses. Children love it when you insert their name into the verse. (‘Me and ____ can pick a bale of cotton). For the party I randomly chose student’s names and had them printed big in advance for a bit of a surprise element.

Here is our raucous version-

And here is Leadbelly’s. I notice now that he speeds up, singing each verse faster and faster. I’ve GOT to do it this way next time!

I also had this picture printed up large to show everyone, and explained how each tiny bit of cotton had to be picked by hand from the flower. This is how big a bale of cotton actually is.

bale of cotton

Puts life into a bit of perspective, eh?

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End of term = Big Fat Music Party!

whole world 2I held my 7th Big Fat Music Party the other week. These are my concerts that don’t feel so much like a concerts. I want to get away from the feelings of dread which seemed inseparable from performing to other people when I was growing up.

I try and encourage as much collaboration between students as I can. It is great to find well known songs where the chord sequence goes round in a loop throughout. In the past we have had great fun with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. This time we had three new numbers like this where everybody could join in. I have written a blog about each one with ideas and downloadable charts.

mairi's wedding 3

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

Pick a Bale of Cotton

Mairi’s Wedding


Apart from the group numbers, here are other things which create a relaxed feel and engage the audience:-

  • Hold the event in someone’s  home. I initially asked the parents of some students who had a nice piano and large front room, and after that first one I had lots of offers from parents to host it at theirs.
  • Have chairs around the edge for the adults and cushions on the floor for the children. This sidesteps the formality of rows of chairs and allows the young students to bond.
  • Make younger siblings welcome. Let them dance and clap. Give them percussion for the big numbers.
  • Ask quiz questions about the pieces being played. This started when I once noticed that a lot of my students were learning music from film and TV, so we held a grand Big Fat Music Party film quiz. I was amazed at just how much this increased audience attention! Now I throw in a question here and there about the music we’re listening to. It engages and relaxes them at the same time. Hooray!
  • Get people to bring snacks so we can all have a good old nosh-up and chat afterwards. Quite often at this point a few children wander back to the abandoned piano and play music together.

amberI must say that probably my favourite aspect of the parties is watching the connections form between my students and their families. I see my students getting to know each other and bonding over their common subject – music. They see the friends they met before, make music together, and get to hear what each other are playing. This is so important. Music should not be a solitary occupation for children. How could that possibly succeed?

archie 2

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Percussive Piano Tunes

Knocking and Clapping in ‘Popcorn’ and ‘Short Legged Benjy’

There are two tunes in ‘Fun, Games and Party Pieces for Beginner Piano‘ with a percussive element where the pupils get to create a rhythm by a combination of knocking on the piano and clapping. I’m still amazed at how positively they all react to it. I recommend we piano teachers should add this element into some of the tunes from other tutor books to breathe some fresh air into them.

Here are the Angry Grey Stripy Muppets* demonstrating these two tunes. Firstly ‘Popcorn’: One reading the chord symbols to play an ‘um cha’ accompaniment on the piano, one on ukulele and one playing the tune.

And now ‘Short Legged Benjy’.

Apologies, the rather abrupt end to this one made me crack up behind the camera. Now I know why I suggested two verses in the book.

*The band name was decided after I drew massive dots and extended the stave in pencil to remind them to do the repeat. The dots looked like eyes and the whole ensemble was said to resemble an angry, grey, stripy Muppet.  Obviously a perfect name for a band. Children today eh? No imagination.

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Chinatown songFor everyone who uses my book, ‘Fun, Games and Party Pieces for beginner piano‘, here is an extra tune which fits perfectly with the third tune in the book, ‘Chinatown’.

Download the PDF

‘Chinatown’ is proving popular with my pupils, and I figured if there is a song to go with it I can get lots of them joining in together at my next Big Fat Music Party.

Thanks to Bay and Katie for their help with the lyrics.

Posted in Fun Games and Party Pieces Beginner, music teaching, piano, sheet music, singing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Popcorn: Ideas and Lyrics

popcorn title

I have been made really happy by the response from my students to the first tune in ‘Fun, Games and Party Pieces’: ‘Popcorn’. They love knocking on the piano and clapping, and take to the rhythm immediately with wide grins all round. The melody which follows is shared between the two hands and has several kinds of symmetry which the children are pleased to discover, making the whole piece gratifyingly easy.

Pattern recognition is a huge part of understanding music, and how switched-on you are to the patterns in tunes (not necessarily consciously) will determine how successful you will be at learning pieces.

I teach my students the chords – um cha, um cha* per bar – and we play it together, playing the percussion parts alongside each other. The students have to get straight to their starting notes on time, feeling the pulse through the clapping and into the notes. It makes an enjoyable game when you’re doing this alongside each other.

For the younger child

WP_20150207_002(2) WP_20150207_003(3)I hadn’t considered that this music might be for pre-schoolers at all until my four year old daughter and her friend saw it open on the piano and asked to learn it, drawn by the pictures of popcorn. They grasped the knocking and clapping just as quickly as the older children. We started the melody on a C# rather than a G, then the girls could follow the black notes up and down; that pentatonic scale ready-made for them. They have to work out which hand to use, and whether it goes up or down. The tune is then finished off with the knocking and clapping once more.

So if you play this tune with tinies, teach it on the black notes!

I came up with some lyrics to go with the tune, and have been using with all my students ever since.


popcorn panPut the corn in the pan

Hungry now? Yes I am

Heat the pan, pop the corn

Eat it up; popcorn’s gone.

*Um cha example on C

um cha




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Paul Harris and Taking the Time to Learn Well

Thanks so much to Frances Wilson for her clear and comprehensive notes from ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ seminar with Paul Harris. It is so good to hear from a music teacher who through his teaching has explored all the many aspects of learning to get to the nub of what music is, what enables a student to learn it well, and therefore how we should teach it.

I am currently reading Paul Harris’ ‘Simultaneous Learning’ and find it encouraging me to go further into the tangents that I like to take based on the musical elements of whatever the students are learning, and question myself much more whenever I find myself in that awful conventional rut of starting proceedings from the notes on the page first. Harris describes this as ‘waiting for things to go wrong and then correcting them.’ Put like this, it’s so obvious. This is exactly what we are doing when we take the traditional route. It is the way most of us were taught. Some of us who really took music on as our own thing continued, but the vast majority gave up.

‘The quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work’.

Recently a mother stopped one of my student’s lessons because the student wasn’t ‘where she should be by her age’. This girl (who was nine) could transpose her tunes into any key, change the modality (minor/major), accompany the tunes using chords in the right hand and a bass line in the left, play the 12 bar blues pattern and improvise in the two pentatonic scales and the blues scale, switching them on request. She was also doing well with note reading and classical scales. I’m sure if I had started her on the grade exams and pushed her along that conveyor belt the mother would have been satisfied. But the way we were building up to it, she would have been able to play her three pieces no problem and any others of that standard, with a real understanding of the music and the reasons behind why you’d bother to learn it in the first place.

Contrasted with this, on Saturdays I teach a whole family of four. All from scratch apart from the mum, who took exams when she was younger and plays to a competent level, but felt something was missing. Because I teach them all on the same day, and seeing them all together gives me so many options for collaboration, they get the full force of the Conrad’s Chords style! They are all very different in personality and how they approach things, and because they are learning as a family they can see how aspects of music (which I might teach in varying ways according to these differences) fit together to make a whole.

After the disappointment of the first student being removed from lessons, I was so happy to hear the mum of this family telling me how the older sibling who hadn’t appeared to embrace piano as fully as the other, had taken up clarinet lessons at school and was amazing her teacher by picking out tunes straight away having only been shown a few notes. Subsequently she is full of confidence with the instrument and is progressing with enthusiasm. ‘I’m sure it’s down to the way you are teaching us’. I couldn’t have hoped to hear a better vote of confidence. This family feel no pressure for anyone to be at a certain level at a certain time. The parents are happy that the children understand and enjoy it.

It’s not always easy to strike a balance between going at the pace a student needs to take in order to fully understand what they are doing, and feeling a need to achieve visible progress to keep the parents happy. I have had many students whose parents ask me every single week how their child is progressing.

I was talking about this recently to a friend who founded his own company, and I was really interested to hear him talk about his experience of how long it takes employees to assimilate into the company and achieve their full potential. He cited two cases of employees who did not seem to be good at their job at all until about two years in, when they made a remarkable shift and became indispensable. His take on it was that it takes that long for a lot of people to process all the requirements put on them by a situation. They need that time to internalise it all and find their feet. When his company had influence from some US based investors, they suggested sacking people after a short time period if they were not seen to be achieving. But he knew that if he had done that with these two people  he would never have known what a great asset they were to become.

What sort of a world is being created here, where people aren’t given the time they need to learn things well? When you can be dropped long before you had chance to prove yourself?

Seeing the difference with my Saturday family, I realise I need to make much more of an effort to bring all parents on board, so they can see for themselves the journey that their child is traveling, and come along with them.

Reading the inspiring words of Paul Harris makes me want to do my job better; be more thoughtful about everything I ask my students to do. Always have a mind for the bigger picture, and instead of feeling reigned in by the expectation of parents, jump on those tangents with both feet and enjoy the journey.

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Entries open for the fourth annual Dulwich Piano Festival

It’s so important that music students have regular opportunities to perform to others in a friendly environment, and have the chance to be inspired by hearing others perform. Especially for piano players, who can often have quite a solitary musical existence.

fest 4I’m looking forward to the for the fourth annual Dulwich Piano Festival held at James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) in East Dulwich. The festival provides an opportunity for pianists of all levels to share their music making with friends and family and to hear a wide range of inspiring repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music.

In addition to graded exam classes, the festival organisers have carefully selected pieces that will appeal to beginner pianists to encourage them to make their Debut performance. In the Duet with Teacher classes you will be accompanied on stage as you play on a beautiful Yamaha S3  grand piano in the magnificent Holst Hall at JAGS school.

fest 6In an exciting twist, lots of the music by contemporary composers will be adjudicated by the composers themselves so this is a wonderful chance to receive feedback from the person that wrote your piece! 

All competitors receive written and verbal feedback, a certificate and printed programme. Many medals and trophies are presented on the day to class winners. 

fest 2You do not need to be a resident of Dulwich to enter. Last year entrants came from as far away as Peterborough, Manchester and even Austria!

Enter online or by email via the festival web site. Entries are open from February 1st to April 1st although class numbers are limited to 15 for beginner classes and 10 for graded exam classes, so early entry is strongly advised as the festival is oversubscribed each year.

fest 1

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