Instrument Pack: Piano

Piano Instrument PackThe piano Instrument Pack provides video tutorials and practice MP3s to add instrument-specific guidance to the core musicality training provided at Musical U.

Resident Pro: Sara Campbell

Sara Campbell

Sara Campbell is a rising star in the world of piano teaching, helping to lead the popular Upbeat Piano Teachers community, contributing regularly to Piano Bench Mag, and regularly running workshops as part of her own music studio in Pennsylvania. Trained as both a singer and a pianist Sara brings a deep understanding of how to nurture musicians’ creativity and provide interesting and modern ways to develop the inner skills needed to feel free in music.

Resource Pack Previews

Every month we release a new Resource Pack for piano. Here are previews of the packs so far:

Pack 1: Beginning Improvisation

It can be intimidating to improvise on piano because typically you’re expected to provide both harmony and melody using your two hands. In this month’s Resource Pack our Resident Pro for piano Sara Campbell teaches some simple but effective ways to get started improvising great-sounding arrangements:

Including:

  • The natural minor scale and a simple chord progression you can use with it
  • Exploring rhythmic and chordal patterns
  • How to completely change your sound with different left-hand patterns
  • Tips and tricks for feeling relaxed when exploring improvisation
  • Applying the same techniques in a different key
  • MP3 tracks demonstrating two different rhythms, two different left-hand patterns and an example solo using them.

With the approach that Sara teaches here, you can simply sit down at the keyboard and easily start creating music. Combined with the core listening skills you can learn with Musical U training, you have everything you need to dive deep into improvisation with confidence.

Pack 2: The Major Pentatonic

Building on the easy and accessible approach to piano improvisation taught in the first Resource Pack, Sara shows how the major pentatonic can be a great way to explore easy piano improv. Through a mix of clear finger-pattern exercises and great-sounding improvisation exercises, she shows how you can quickly and easily master this valuable tool.

Including:

  • Major Pentatonic Scale basics: how to figure it out in any key.
  • Two Pentatonic Scale warmup exercises to help you get familiar with all 12 pentatonic scales.
  • A fun boogie-bass improvisation exercise.
  • Various patterns you can use to explore the sound of the pentatonic.
  • A handy tip for knowing when to use the pentatonic to improvise.
  • MP3 practice tracks for the warmups and improvisation exercises.
  • Quick reference sheets for the two warmup exercises showing the scales in all 12 keys.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when considering improvisation on piano or how to master scales across all 12 major and minor keys. Fortunately, Sara knows exactly how to crush that barrier and make learning pentatonic improv fun, easy and effective from the very beginning.

Pack 3: Audiation

As Sara points out in her video, pianists sometimes struggle because their fingers are so far from their ears! Bridging the gap through audiation and singing can help you gain the “instinct” for which notes your fingers should be playing.

Including:

  • Audiation: What is it? How can you do it? And most importantly, how can audiation be useful for pianists?
  • Audiation and singing exercises that you can use to sharpen your skills.
  • Demonstration of specific ways to use your voice while learning to play a song by ear on the piano.
  • Tips, tricks and cool stuff you can do with singing and audiation.
  • MP3 Practice Tracks for singing exercises based on scales and tunes.

From simple scale-based exercises to more advanced song-based practice, Sara explains a step-by-step method to make singing and audiation an easy and natural part of your piano practice and gradually build that inner sense of where the right notes live on the keyboard.

Pack 4: Scale Degree Recognition

To apply scale degree recognition for practical musical purposes you need to get the hang of two things: relating it to your instrument, and actually working out music using scale degrees, note-by-note.

In this Resource Pack Sara tackles both of these, introducing an exercise and variations to help you get the basics of solfa in place, and then valuable tips and tricks for using this to play melodies by ear.

Including:

  • A quick rundown about how scale degrees (solfa or numbers) can be helpful when figuring out a melody by ear
  • A simple chords exercise that will help you hone your solfa ears
  • Two tips that will help you apply your knowledge of solfa to figure out melodies that have tricky leaps or chromatic alterations
  • MP3 Practice Tracks for the chord solfa warmup exercises

Pack 5: I-IV-V Chord Progressions

In this pack Sara explores some creative ways to improvise accompaniments for three-chord songs and made it easy to find the I, IV and V chords in any key.

Including:

  • The I-IV-V Progression Trick: An easy way to figure out the I-IV-V progression in any key by using the finger numbers in your RH
  • Tips and tricks for I-IV-V progressions
  • Four different accompaniment patterns of varying difficulties. These can be really useful when you’re learning I-IV-V in an unfamiliar key!
  • MP3 Practice Tracks providing the left-hand part for two different progressions in two different keys, leaving you free to experiment with different right-hand patterns.

Pack 6: Rhythmic Precision

In this pack Sara approaches rhythmic precision from the question of “what trips piano players up, when it comes to rhythm?” and she answers it with practical tips, exercises, and tech resources to help you improve

Including:

  • The most common rhythmic pitfalls for pianists
  • Tips for keeping good rhythm when playing in a group
  • Useful left-hand patterns that can help you keep the beat
  • Recommended apps that can help you gain rhythmic precision.
  • MP3 tracks for practicing left-hand patterns as well as your ability to “count through the rests”

The exercises and ideas Sara shares can be applied no matter what music you’re working on, and provide a variety of great ways to work on your rhythmic precision on an ongoing basis as you learn piano.

Pack 7: The Power of Dynamics

In this pack, Sara approaches the topic of dynamics in terms of storytelling and what a musician can accomplish musically through effective use of dynamics, and she shares exercises you can use to develop your skill with both the core techniques and the musical application of dynamics.

Including:

  • Dynamic Overview: A quick run-down of Italian dynamic signs and terms that you may come across in sheet music.
  • Storytelling with Dynamics: What we can learn from acting and script analysis when it comes to dynamics, and how we can apply these concepts to enhance our own storytelling abilities at the piano.
  • Messa di voce: A simple dynamic exercise based on a term that comes from the Italian school of singing.
  • MP3 Practice tracks demonstrating and providing backing for the dynamic exercises covered.

Although any pianist can and should learn to accurately reproduce the intended dynamic levels in a piece, from pianissimo to fortissimo and beyond, you’ll take your playing to another level of musicality when you learn to really use dynamics in your own way to bring the music to life.

Pack 8: Improvising with Chord Tones

In this resource pack, Resident Pro Sara Campbell looks at one of the most useful (but sometimes tricky) methods: improvising with chord tones:

Including:

  • Triad Basics: How to find the correct chord tones using chord symbols.
  • Seventh Chords: Taking chord improv a step further with a variety of seventh chords.
  • More tips, tricks, and cool stuff to simplify the process of playing with chord tones.
  • MP3 backing tracks and guided exercises.

Not sure why you should learn how to improvise with chord tones? Take a look at the sheet music of some of your favorite songs. (A version with chord symbols above the piano part would be best!) You’ll see that the majority of notes in the melody can also be found within the chord structure. If you want your improvised melody to sound as natural as the original, improvising with chord tones is your ticket!

Pack 9: Syncopation

In the piano pack, Resident Pro Sara Campbell introduces an improvisational approach to amp up your syncopation skills in rhythmic and melodic playing:

Including:

  • What Exactly is Syncopation? A terminology rundown and discussion about a couple types of syncopation.
  • Syncopation Exercises: three exercises in a variety of keys and styles.
  • Tips for Learning Syncopation: If you get frustrated with counting or deciphering scores, these tips will really help.
  • Clear Notation: Composers and transcribers, this is for you!
  • Play-along MP3 backing tracks to sharpen your syncopation skills.

Enjoy your rhythmic learning as you create while you syncopate (with the added bonus of working through your fluency in all keys).

Pack 10: Swing Rhythm

Resident Pro Sara Campbell breaks down the mysterious “feel” of swing with simple mathematical concepts – until this rhythmic style becomes more clear and accessible. She also clears up many sight-reading issues that pianists typically encounter when reading music in swing rhythm, especially regarding pick-up notes, sixteenths and other rhythmic complexities:

Including:

  • What Exactly is Swing Rhythm? How to feel (and count!) swinging 8th notes.
  • Counting Complex Rhythms: What to do with triplets, single 8th notes, and 16th notes.
  • Swing Rhythm Exercises:  three exercises to help you with common swing rhythms.
  • Playalong MP3 backing tracks to sharpen your syncopation skills

Banish the fear of the “Swing Feel” marking on your sheet music, and bring your piano playing to life with Sara’s swinging Resource Pack.

Pack 11: Improvising with Phrasing and Form

Resident Pro Sara Campbell loves songs. In this resource pack, Sara shows you how you can deploy the standard structure of popular songs to literally improvise a new song on the spot. Also, how improvisation can be used as a compositional tool within song form to create new and lasting piano instrumentals with shape, depth, and meaning.

Including:

  • Song Form and Structure: How using song form can assist you in telling a story.
  • How to expand your melodic ideas through phrasing, structure, and sequences.
  • Improvisation Exercise: A chord chart and piano chart that will help you develop different melodies for various parts of a song.
  • Playalong MP3 backing tracks with a beautiful song-form chord progression in two different keys – over which you improvise your own melodies.

Rather than just improvising a solo on someone else’s song, improvise the entire song yourself! And, in the process, learn how to shape your musical expression with form.

Pack 12: Intervals

Resident Pro Sara Campbell shows how the structure of the piano keyboard – that ultimate music interface – reflects the inner intervallic architecture of the diatonic scale, and makes finding and remembering intervals a breeze:

Including:

  • Major Scale Exercise – One magical exercise that incorporates all major, minor, and perfect intervals within the major diatonic scale.
  • Finding Fifths on the Keyboard – How to quickly find and practice one of the most important intervals in tertian harmony.
  • Interval Reading Trick – Here’s a super easy way to recognize intervals on the staff. Once you learn these patterns, it will be much easier for you to quickly read intervals.
  • Jazzy MP3 backing tracks which bring your interval practice to life.

See how learning simple intervals can create beautiful, even complex-sounding music quickly, as well as how the piano itself lends itself to easy tricks for interval practice.

Pack 13: The Blues

Resident Pro Sara Campbell has the blues, and is living proof that playing the blues makes you feel good!

Including:

  • The 12 Bar Blues Breakdown: what exactly is a “12 bar blues”?
  • Left-hand blues patterns of varying levels to get you started on the blues wherever you are.
  • The Minor Blues Scale: a handy chart of all 12 minor blues scales.
  • Riffs and licks: ideas that will help you develop interesting melodies.
  • A blues warm-up challenge.
  • A super-useful 12 bar blues worksheet and fun practice tracks.

Sara breaks down the blues in simple, doable steps that soon will have you playing the blues and feeling good.

Pack 14: Major and Minor

Once you have major and minor chords under your piano fingers in so many ways, you have made a huge step towards playing by ear, reading lead sheets, and improvising. Resident Pro for piano, Sara Campbell, zeros in on major and minor chords – how to find them on the keyboard and have them thoroughly ingrained through different inversions, patterns, and even some improv:

Including:

  • Explanation of major and minor triads.
  • A series of chromatic crawl exercises that work through all 12 major and minor triads.
  • An exercise that applies these concepts to major and minor chords in the diatonic scale.
  • Playing the chords in blocks, arpeggios, and a variety of different right- and left-hand patterns.
  • A fun call-and-response improvisation exercise
  • MP3 tracks to demonstrate the exercises, and backup tracks for the improv exercises.

After working through this Piano Resource Pack, you will thoroughly own your major and minor chords in a big way. And Sara knows how to combine a thorough, systematic training with enjoyable music-making experiences that will have you running to the piano every chance you get.

Pack 15: Timbre

Timbre, or “tone color,” refers to the quality of tone that is distinctive to a particular instrument. This month’s resource pack will unpack a few of the ways that we can change the timbre of our piano. Resident Pro for piano, Sara Campbell, shows how several concepts and techniques intersect to form piano timbre:

Including:

  • How timbre, velocity, and volume are linked on the piano.
  • Ways to change timbre through dynamics, articulation, and pedaling.
  • Exercises to practice these timbral variations.
  • MP3 tracks to demonstrate the exercises, with call and response for both imitation and improvisation.

Think the only way to change piano timbre is to buy an electronic keyboard? Think again! Sara shows you that your old acoustic piano still has some tricks up its sleeve.

Pack 16: Chord Voicing

Spanning 88 pitches, the piano presents a huge canvas for painting chord voicing effects. But it all starts with getting the special close voicings known as “inversions” under your fingers. Resident Pro for piano, Sara Campbell, makes inversion exercises fun, beautiful, and musical, and then expands on them with lovely two-handed voicings leading to a surprisingly sophisticated harmonization of a very familiar little tune:

Including:

  • Lovely exercises for practicing your inversions for triads and seventh chords that actually sound like music.
  • Simple examples that transform these inversions into more beautiful voicings.
  • Finding hidden beauty in a simple tune through harmonization with chord voicing.
  • MP3 backing tracks for each exercise that will raise your enjoyment up to the next level.

With ten fingers and 88 keys, piano chord voicing can be very lush and satisfying without being all that difficult. Sara will guide you as you delve into the possibilities.

Pack 17: Play it with feeling!

Connecting with your instrument (and your audience!)  gives music meaning and makes both performing and listening more enjoyable! The ability to play with feeling comes innately to some, but for others, it can be a difficult journey. In this resource pack, Resident Pro for piano, Sara Campbell, teaches specific ways to enhance the emotional connection with your music:

Including:

  • What might be “standing in your way” if you struggle with this connection.
  • Micro-level dynamics and phrase shaping.
  • An expressive exploration of the Irish tune, “Danny Boy”.
  • How to mine the emotional information from song lyrics – even when you’re playing an instrumental solo.
  • Jazzy MP3 “Danny Boy” backing tracks for a new take on an old tune.

Playing piano with feeling does not have to be a mysterious process! Sara shows that careful and loving attention to a song can help you bring forward your deep expressive potential.

Pack 18: Improvisation 1, 2, 3

Improvisation can be scary when we think about the 88 different options on the piano.

The truly scary thing is that there are even more options than that! When we improvise we’re not just thinking about which notes to play, but when we play them, how long we play them for, and how we play them. Too many options right?

In this resource pack, Guest Piano Pro for piano, Ruth Power, teaches how to simplify and expand into new musical dimensions:


Including:

  • How to choose as little as 1, 2 or 3 pitches to create motifs and phrases.
  • How to fluff around and solidify a basic rhythm for that pitch.
  • How to create variation with articulation and dynamics.
  • Extra three-note improv tips and tricks.
  • MP3 backing tracks for you to practice hands separately before you put them together.

We can create something musically textured with just three notes or even less by focussing on how we can make each note special. This makes it interesting for the listener and expresses an idea or feeling rather than running up and down the requisite scale as fast as possible!

Pack 19: Harmonic Tension and Release

Good vs. evil, dark clouds with silver linings, sweet & sour… so many great things in our lives are accompanied by their opposite. But it’s the bad that makes the good feel so wonderful – we experience this polarity every day of our lives and it’s also within music. In music, we have different words for it: harmony and dissonance, or as talked about in this Resource Pack, tension and release.

In this resource pack, Guest Piano Pro for piano, Ruth Power, teaches how to grow your awareness and skills through improvisation:

Including:

  • How to direct your tension to create the most satisfying release.
  • Eight powerful exercises that explore the nuances of non-chord tones and the varying ways they resolve to chord tones.
  • MP3 demo and backing tracks that illustrate and provide practice opportunities for each exercise.
  • Bonus MP3 “Level Up” backing tracks in every major key.

Tension sounds like something we really wouldn’t want in our music, but tension is the very reason that the release is so sweet! Ruth shares some techniques we can use in improvisation to easily create moments of tension and release. We can create an improvisation on the fly that is intentional, that pushes all the right buttons in yourself and your listeners, and gives meaning to the music.

Pack 20: I, IV, V, vi Chord Progressions

The songwriters that create songs for mainstream music don’t write hits by accident – these songwriters know which core-chords are going to be the most impactful to their listeners.

Those chords are not in the hundreds, not even dozens… when we distill these hit-making chords into their simplest form we are talking about three or four chords. Doesn’t that sound more manageable?

In this resource pack, Piano Pro, Ruth Power, teaches you how to play I-IV-V-vi progressions on your keyboard:

Including:

  • How to build on your previous knowledge of I-IV-V progressions.
  • Introducing the “Sad Twin” (often referred to as the “relative minor”.)
  • Five fun exercises in varying styles from dance to pop to doo-wop and more.
  • MP3 demo and backing tracks that illustrate and provide practice opportunities for each exercise.

Once you have mastered these patterns, you’ll be ready to take them out into the real world. To fully master these handy chord progressions, begin to learn them in all 12 keys. It’s a fair amount of work to master this, but just think how many hundreds of songs this opens up to your playing!

Pack 21: The Play By Ear Process, Part 1: Melody

Learning a song by ear on the piano can seem daunting. Pianists have both the blessing and the curse of being able to play melody, chords, and rhythm all at the same time. This is great fun when you know how to play a song, it feels good to be able to represent a whole song fully on our own. But when we work out a song by ear, there is a lot to figure out and learn to play.

Piano Pro, Ruth Power, loves to teach about playing by ear:

Including:

  • The components of playing by ear.
  • How to listen to the songs you want to learn.
  • Why it’s important to sing – and sing boldly – to figure out melodies by ear.
  • A seven-step process using the major scale you already know.
  • 10 play by ear exercises to develop your skills in this process
  • 20 MP3 tracks that illustrate and provide practice opportunities for each exercise.
  • Easy transcription shortcuts to help you remember the melody you just learned.

With Piano Pro Ruth Power’s guidance, you will learn an easy, straightforward method of figuring out your favorite songs on piano – and have plenty of melodies to practice with and build your skills.

Pack 22: The Play By Ear Process, Part 2: Basslines

Bass is cool. There’s no doubt.

Pianists don’t have to miss out on that essential element.

The bass part is a great place to start when learning the harmony (chords) of a song by ear. This is because for the most part – and certainly, in basic popular songs – the bass part is the root note of the chord. Piano Pro, Ruth Power, shows how you can recognize and play bass patterns by ear:

Including:

  • How to tune your bass-ic instinct to hear the chord progression.
  • Fishing” for bass.
  • How to rank the chords and scale degrees to narrow down your note choices.
  • The five bass movement shortcuts that will accelerate your grasp of basslines in the music you love.
  • Three powerful exercises for learning basslines by ear.
  • 17 MP3 tracks that illustrate and provide practice opportunities for each exercise.

With Piano Pro Ruth Power, you will combine hands-on bassline practice with learning to grab these patterns by ear and feed your musical hunger with juicy chunks of bass.

Pack 23: The Play By Ear Process, Part 3: Chords

Chords and their harmonic functions are what makes a piece of music more than just a string of notes. Piano resident pro Ruth Power digs deeper into this concept, offering an ear-based way of understanding how chords connect with the moods and emotions of music – because after all, our emotional reaction to music is why we enjoy it in the first place!

Including:

  • identifying the emotions (and thus, functions) of different chords
  • going beyond major and minor chords to explore more nuanced chord types
  • the ins-and-outs of playing these different types of chords on your instrument
  • hearing the various “emotional flavours” of chords within a progression
  • Ear training tracks embedded in the video, as well as exercises and MP3s for you to calibrate your “emotional chord-o-meter”.

With this intuitive approach to picking out chords by ear, you can let your heart be your chord guide. Enjoy!

Pack 24: The Play By Ear Process, Part 4: Chord Progressions

You can think of a chord progression as a mini-story, with each chord telling a different part.

In this month’s Piano Instrument Pack, resident pro Ruth Power explores how chords in sequence create a narrative, how rearranging the order of the chords changes the mood of a progression, and the rule of thumb for deciphering a chord progression – and as our other resident pros have pointed out, the trick lies in the bassline:

Including:

  • The most common chord progression and how to build it
  • Functions of different chords in a progression
  • Altering a chord progression’s mood by adding just one chord
  • A handy chord symbol overview to help you recognize notation
  • Exercises for chord matching, chord progression recognition, and hearing bass notes
  • Video tutorials to illustrate concepts

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