Saturday, March 20, 2010

Using Primary Chords to Harmonize Tunes

For the last couple of weeks, my students have been having fun for a few minutes at each lesson playing "by brain!" (Some might call it playing "by ear!") We're harmonizing tunes using the chords from the cadence pattern they've learned to play at the end of their scales for festival. I think it's important to provide a context rather than just teaching students to play disembodied chord progressions. I was once one of those piano students who had memorized cadence patterns yet still couldn't play Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne without printed music. That's a bit like having your multiplication tables memorized but not knowing when multiplication is the right operation to use. It's very important to me that my students don't end up in the same embarrassing situation!

My second year students learn to play one-octave scales beginning on the white keys and finishing with a I-V7-I cadence. After they pass the scale test at Festival, we go back and learn the full I-IV-I-V7-I cadence in all of those keys. Spiraling back around this way really reinforces their understanding. As soon as they can play the primary chords in the keys they know, I have them learn to play some simple folk tunes "by ear" in C Major and harmonize them using the chords from the cadence pattern. Then we transpose each song into at least two other keys. You'll find at the bottom the first of several student worksheets that I've created. I'll post more later. I chose those particular tunes as the first ones because the melody starts on the tonic and incorporates only melodic 2nds and 3rds. With the exception of Yankee Doodle, the tunes extend only one note beyond a 5-finger position. So far, my plan is working out very well, and the students are very excited about their accomplishments! I think that coordinating these activities with learning the cadence pattern gives it a context that the students understand.

I've provided some links you can share to help students become familiar with the songs if they aren't already. Of course, if you have a Ning network for your studio, you can simply upload the videos to your studio page for easy access.

As their skills build, we'll begin to use melodies that on something other than tonic and utilize melodic intervals other than just 2nds and 3rds. (Like Happy Birthday.) I'll also encourage them to find new ways to accompany the melody than just playing a block chord. One of my students was so excited last week to discover that she could play a beautiful version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star just by arpeggiating primary chords along with the tune!

Video Links:

Michael Row The Boat Ashore
Pete Seeger

Kum Ba Yah
Joan Baez

Oh When The Saints Go Marching In
Louis Armstrong

Yankee Doodle
Charlie Zahm - includes historical info

Fake Sheets:

Kum Ba Yah

Links to more printable fake sheets with chord blanks:

Michael Row The Boat Ashore

When the Saints Go Marching In

Yankee Doodle

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