Tag: piano lessons

What is Solfège?

“Solfège”, “solfeggio”, or “so-fa names” – they all refer to the same thing – the system of singing notes of a scale in “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti”. Remember the song in “The Sound of Music”? Like “do, a deer, a female deer; (Re!) ray, a drop of golden sun”? …

Yes, whenever I introduce the so-fa system to students and teachers, most of them would say, yes, they have heard about do-re-mi. But it’s usually unknown to them where the source of information comes from.

Many students first feel embarrassed to sing in lessons, and often I can feel that they have the question as to why they have to sing in a piano lesson. I usually explain in brief why that would help them with their playing and eventually they start to accept it and get to singing along with me. 

For me, singing has been quite natural. Not that I was trained earlier on with singing lessons (I did have some classical vocal lessons later in life), just that I was used to singing in music lessons and choirs. Then I went on playing piano for a lot of singers and also conducting choirs, so for me singing is fun, expressive and liberating- using my own body as the instrument can be a very emotional experience.

Aural training/Sight singing is a very important aspect in music learning in my opinion. In fact, it is such an important part of music training in European conservatories that aural training/sight singing class (using solfège system) is often mandatory. 

Not only do I introduce aural training/sight singing early on in our Music on Wings Piano Beginner Course, I also encourage students who are late to the training pick up the habit of singing in solfège. It is super helpful for part singing and recognising chords and cadences in graded music/piano exams (e.g. from grade 6 onwards candidates have to sing a melodic line over a piano accompaniment, to grades 7 and 8 do part singing, identify cadences and chords, modulations etc). 

Using solfège system helps students to sing individual notes with more accuracy in pitch as it shows more clearly the relationship between two notes. And there are two ways in general to sing solfège, one, the “Fixed Do” system, and two, the “Movable Do” system.

I myself prefer and teach students the “Movable Do” as it makes much more sense to me musically. In brief,  with “Fixed Do”, “Do” is always “C”, no matter what key you are in.  With “Movable Do”, “do” is the tonic note.  For example, in the key of C Major, “C” is “Do”, but in the key of D Major” “D” is “Do”.  There are variations in terms of syllables used throughout the world, but I stick with “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do”.

One can also use numbers in place of syllables to sing the notes, and it would be “ one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one” with “seven” shortened for singing purpose. It works too especially for those who haven’t really started with the solfège system, as numbers tell you exactly what degree of the note it is in the scale, and give you a much clearer idea of the relevant interval between two notes (super helpful with identifying chords and cadences). For me it doesn’t work as well since I am too used to using the solfège system already, and besides, I have perfect pitch, so I don’t have to rely on the numbers to know what notes they are (sorry not sorry! but one can still definitely have a fantastic absolute pitch with systematic training).

When it comes to singing music in minor keys, I use “La, Ti, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Si, La”, with “La” being the tonic note. For example, in the key of A Minor, “A” is “La, and in the key of E minor, “E” is “La”.  I know, it’s getting a bit complicated, but when you’re used to the system, it’s really much easier than it sounds (!).

In our Grade 8 Aural Training Comprehensive Training Course, I teach solfège and discuss further about how that helps students sing the bass line, identify cadences and chords, as well as sing the part-singing more efficiently and even more importantly, accurately. Without knowing how to identify individual notes one way or another, it becomes a very confusing task for a lot of candidates who are preparing for ABRSM Grade 8 music exams of any instruments. 

Sight singing can be a lot of fun when you know how to approach it. Whether you are a piano student preparing for your grade 8 piano exam, or a piano teacher helping students to learn more effectively in their piano lessons, or a parent wanting to help their kids become more engaged in their music learning journey, singing is wonderful itself and has so much more to offer for instrumental playing. I encourage everyone who hasn’t done much in singing tries their hands in it, and it’s very simple to begin: just start singing the music you’ve been learning in your piano/violin/guitar/clarinet/bass lessons! Start with a line or two and go from there. You can even use pop music, the song sung by your favorite singer/band. Try using so-fa names or numbers and see how you feel about it. There are so much waiting for you to explore in this music learning journey! 

Practice Makes Better

We’ve all heard of the phrase, “practice makes perfect”. I sure have, and held onto it for a really long time.

Being a professional musician means that you have to practice hard and long to perfect a piece. But more often than not, “perfection” can become a negative word.

What do I mean by that? Isn’t it what we should strive for, perfection?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t practice hard to know our music so well that we can recite it in our sleep (or maybe dream about it! – I know I have). I actually tried memorizing a piece backward – from the end back to the beginning – to test myself if I knew it well enough for my performance. But maybe that’s a bit too much? I wonder.

Anyway, my point is, sometimes we should focus on the process rather than the result, especially when you as a student – a beginner – or someone who’s just picked up the instrument again after years of hiatus. Who’s a beginner you might ask? Anyone who has less than 5 continuous years’ experience at the instrument would I consider a beginner. And if one didn’t really spend that much time practicing and playing in their years of learning, one could still be a beginner after even 10 years of lessons. A lot of times, we need to plan and achieve small goals, and in terms of the big picture, the many achievement of small goals eventually lead to one big success.

I believe in “practice makes better”. I do want my students to become better at the piano, there’s no doubt about it. But after the many years of teaching and observation, I find that those who focus too much of how well they can play at that moment often lose sight of how well they can become in the future, provided that they keep putting effort and time into their lessons and practice. Unfortunately, those who feel they are not getting better in their playing are those who lose confidence and interest, and eventually, give up on the whole music journey.

I always remember this one adult student, who was (and still is) very passionate about piano playing. He had only a few years of training with me but he showed a lot of promise right from the start. All other adult students were in awe of what he could play in a very short time. Most of all, he had fun and showed a lot of confidence in his playing. At times his performance was not on par, but he didn’t feel bad about it. One subpar performance didn’t deter him from keep going; instead, he moved on and kept doing better in the next performance. Even when he was working overseas, he told me how he would look for a piano to practice. Eventually, he decided to give up on his job and devoted himself into music. Now he works at a music conservatory and competes internationally.

One special thing about him is not about how well he plays or how devoted he is into piano, but rather that he always keeps a good spirit about his playing and doesn’t focus on one slip or two. I believe it’s his positive attitude that keeps him moving forward and progress immensely.

Obviously not everyone wants to become a professional pianist, and I don’t actually care about that. What I truly care about is that my students, no matter young or mature, beginner or advanced, enjoy their playing, their practice, their lessons, and above all, respect that they have their own special journey in music; that sometimes they progress quickly, and other times they would get stuck and feel lost. The only way to move on is to keep going. It’s okay to take a break, but after rest, it’s time to stand up and continue the journey, because, this journey is super beautiful, and it is so worth it.

Teresa Wong

P.S. I just want to say a special “thank you” to whoever is reading this. This journey for me has been great, a lot of ups and downs, has taken me to so many places in the world and met so many people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. I feel honored to have you read this, follow me, taken/taking lessons from me (as a student, a teacher, or as a parent, in person or online), read/bought my books, watched me videos. No matter what the future brings, I know I have shared with you in all honesty and that I have done something good..

Five Steps to Effective Piano Practice

How do we practice effectively to improve our piano playing and perform well in concerts and exams?

Here is a simple guideline anyone can follow in every piano practice session.

Five Steps To Effective Piano Practice

1. Tone

Tone is the quality of sound, which is different from the volume of sound (when we talk about “dynamics”, the softness and loudness of sound, the piano and forte).

How do we achieve the different qualities of sound? By applying the right technique. Mastering the varieties in attack, touch and weight transfer is the key to a whole new world of sound. Therefore, working on gaining a solid technical control and variety in technical skills is of tremendous importance.

2. Elements

Sometimes my students say to me, “I don’t know what to do with the piece! I just keep playing it through to make it sound more smooth.” That is not a practice. That is simply playing through a piece.

Don’t know what to do? Find out what the important elements in the music piece are. What is going on in the melody? Listen to the different leaps between notes (“intervals“): a third is very different from a sixth or an octave, and a minor third is different from a major third. Pay attention to the subtle change in the melodic contour and show the nuance in your playing.

In the case of a fugue, where is the subject and what are the elements in the subject? Where are the beginning of the fugal entries in various voices? Are there any motives (melodic /rhythmic patterns) that recurs in the song in different voices/registers? And how about the tonalities? Are there any significant key changes? Or perhaps some special sounding chords (dissonance vs consonance)? It would be good for you to be able to identify the chord nature such as diminished /augmented /minor /major /dominant 7th/9th etc., but the first step is train your ears to differentiate the subtle nuance among different chords and harmony first.

One element many piano students neglect is rhythm. Really try to pay closer attention to execute the correct rhythm, for example, dotted rhythm is very differently than an even rhythm, and triplets or quintuplets need to be treated differently than regular eighths or sixteenths. If you can’t play them, clap them first. It’s about getting the rhythm in your body rather than at your fingers. Sometimes I ask my students to dance or tap to the music (of course I do that with them!) . It’s a fun way to practice and get the rhythm naturally easily.

3. Dynamics and phrasing

In general, it should be easy to show the dynamic changes and phrasing in your playing simply by following the markings on the score. But in order to give a more expressive performance, you need to interpret the piece yourself. Where is the beginning and ending of each phrase? After you have found the melodic sequences and the harmonic changes, what do you do to show them clearly to the audience? An expressive and musical playing can only be done by, on top of all the technical analysis, putting your heart and soul into the music, and that means feeling the music emotionally and physically. What do you feel about the rise and fall in the melody? Do you feel the difference between a rising minor third and a falling octave? How do you feel about them and what would you do to show them?

4. Articulation

Articulation expresses the more delicate nuance of individual notes while phrasing gives life and clarity to each musical phrase. Paying attention to articulate each note is like making effort at speaking every word so clearly, that your listener understand exactly what you want to express. And remember, it’s not just if it’s “legato” or “staccato”: there are many ways and combinations to “say” what you want at the piano!

5. Tempo

Having a steady tempo that you can control well under pressure is a major contribution to your success, whether it be in a performance, a competition or an exam. One thing any piano student should definitely pay attention to is establishing a steady pulse. Again, pulse is not the same as tempo, but without a steady pulse no one can hear exactly what your tempo is!

Sometimes it is wise to take the tempo down a few notches in order to present a well controlled and confident piano performance. And when it comes to a piece at a slow tempo, you might find playing it at a slightly more moving tempo helps the music flow along better. There is no hard or fast rule to the decision at tempo adjustment, certainly it’s best to express the music at its desirable speed (or marked tempo), but it is something a performer needs to think about from time to time. Moreover, even the “desirable speed” can be flexible in some cases (note: maybe not so much for standardized piano exams especially at graded levels): go listen to some recordings of the same piece (say a Beethoven sonata or Bach toccata) by different artists (or even same artist at different periods of his/her career), compare the tempi of the recordings, and you might be surprised just how different each artist’s approach is.

This is just a very general guideline to give you as a piano student some pointers on how to have a more effective piano practice session. But if you really pay attention to start following these few rules, you would be pleasantly surprised by the improvement you make at your piano playing!

Have fun at the piano!

Teresa Wong

How does an online piano lesson work ?

Hello everyone, this is Teresa Wong.  

Today I want to explain to you how an online piano lesson works. In fact it is very simple.  

First, you need three tools.  

The first tool is your piano.

The second tool is your phone or computer: this way we can see each other online.  

The third tool is a good internet connection.  There is a fourth tool which is microphone, but it’s not an compulsory item.

Let me now tell you how you can set up for an online piano lesson.  

First of all, you need to sit in front of your piano.  Place your phone or computer next to the piano. The best position is that I can see your hands (and forearms) at the keyboard.  

You can use any online video chat app like WeChat, facetime, Skype, whatsapp.  Here you can see me and my piano. This is how I show how to improve my piano performance. If you have any questions about online piano lessons, simulation tests or intensive exam improvement programs, please leave a message or email me. See you next time!

More on my online piano lessons

Honoring Music Teaching

Teaching is a service to others.

Teachers are the guides, to shed light for their students on the path of knowledge and learning, with wisdom, insight, compassion, patience and empathy.

Teachers pass their knowledge, skills and information, their ways of learning and problem solving to their disciples, so that they can adapt, modify and create their own principles and methods to apply wisely for their own learning and skills. It’s the kind of flexible and smart principle that helps one to apply in different situations accordingly, instead of a cookie cutter, one size fit all rigid method that can be used in only one fixed situation.

I have the privilege to have learnt from great masters and teachers, and the pleasure to have passed my knowledge to my wonderful students of many over the past two decades. I am also grateful to have this platform to share it with you my readers here. I hope you have all learnt something useful and impactful, something that lasts and is applicable in many ways, which would be the definition of true knowledge.

As for the aspiring music teachers, I hope you have mustered all your courage, your passion as well as your patience, when you are just starting out and at times feeling frustrated, exhausted and simply, lost. Keep up with your great work, keep on with your love for music and teaching, I’m here to support you.

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