December 6, 2020

I have a confession to make...

Confession: I started learning piano when I was 5, but I didn’t learn my first piece of music by ear until I was 13 years old.

Like, it didn’t even occur to me that that was an option until 8 YEARS into my piano journey.

I remember it distinctly - the dim lighting in the dining room, the smell of my parents cooking dinner, the feeling that I was somehow cheating. 

The song was “How to Save a Life” by The Fray. I really liked the song, and it had this lovely piano intro. I thought about asking my piano teacher to find me the sheet music, but then I thought, What if I just… tried to figure it out myself?

I somehow found the very first note of the intro, and then the next, and several painstaking hours later, I had the opening chord progression (luckily they were broken chords!). 

I enjoyed that experience, but for the rest of high school, I remained tethered to sheet music. I had a WONDERFUL piano teacher - the best within a two hour radius from our house - but her focus was the classical tradition. 

And as much as I loved angsty pop piano, I never even asked her to learn it! I just thought that serious musicians “don’t bother with that stuff”. 

This world I created in my head, the world where music only existed on a page, would not be merged with the world of living music until a decade later. 

And that’s a shame.

I don’t want the same thing for my students.
I want them to be able to hear a song and plunk it out if they want to.
I want them to gather with their families and sing Christmas carols (if they’re into that), or jam with their siblings throughout the year for fun.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do love a good Christmas song arranged for piano solo. But I try to make sure, especially during this season, that students learn a chordal/vocal/aural approach to playing as well.

So, my Christmas gift to you is a FREE pdf download of six “singalong chord sheets” that you can print or send to your students.

They include lyrics, given STARTING NOTES for singing, chord symbols, and chord diagrams (on a separate page, for those students who might experience visual overwhelm).

"Why bother making your own chord charts?"

I don't know about you, but I'm never fully satisfied the chord charts I find from a quick Google search - at least, not when I'm looking for something for my beginning students.

Chord charts from Ultimate Guitar, for example, are often messy. They might:
- have lots of extra chords that overly complicate the song
- notate chords in a strange way (who wants to try and explain "A# Major" to their student?)
- have the chord symbol written over the wrong syllable or word (this happens strangely often)
- be full of visual elements that can overwhelm a student with visual processing issues
- be in a key that is unfriendly to the student's vocal range. Sure, they can transpose, but they might forget/not understand how to do so

I make my own chord charts slightly differently. Instead of writing out lyrics strictly line by line, I try to write them out so they intuitively match the chord changes. This means that a phrase might be split into two lines or merged with another, but that's how music works!

And, I like to give students the starting note so they can "tune themselves in" when singing at home by themselves or with friends and family.

How to use this resource with your students:

Get creative! You can use them however you'd like, but here's how I usually do it:

  1. Make sure the student is familiar with the song. Preferably they can sing/hum it with good intonation. If not, spend time on this first!
  2. Teach the chords. Give context by talking about the key of the song, playing the scale for the given key, and finding all of the chords in the song. Point out easy-to-remember patterns, such as "all of these chords are all white keys, except for this one". If one chord is "out" of the key, such as a D Major in the key of C Major, talk about it! 
  3. Have the student practice the chords in root position with one hand by alternating between two consecutive chords at a time with a steady beat (for example: C for two beats, then G for two beats, back and forth). Set a metronome to keep them honest 🙂
  4. Add singing. Depending on the student's level, you can demonstrate playing and singing phrase by phrase, letting the student echo you after each short phrase. Or, you can sing while the student plays the chords, and then switch (they sing while you play the chords). It can be helpful to make a video during the lesson so they remember what to do at home!
  5. Elaborate on the accompaniment. If root position chords while singing are easy for the student, add a challenge by having them play the chords with the RH while playing the root of the chords with the LH (on a single key or an octave). You can also teach inversions and voice leading between the chords, show patterns such as a waltz or a stride bass, 

Before the lesson ends, make sure your student knows how to find and match the starting note with their voice while playing the first chord at the same time!

To maximize success, send a video for them and their parents to sing along with.

These charts aren't meant to replace solo piano sheet music during the holidays!
They are meant to inspire spontaneous music-making at home and develop skills other than sight reading.
Plus, they're a quick win for those students who may not practice as much as you'd like them to.

Songs in the Download:

Jingle Bells - C Major

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - G Major

Frosty the Snowman - G Major

Oh Christmas Tree - C Major

Feliz Navidad - G Major

The 12 Days of Christmas - C Major

About the author 

Selena Pistoresi

Selena is a lifelong pianist and piano teacher of over a decade. She owns a studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where she specializes in working with students with special needs. She equips teachers all over the world with the mindset, tools, and curriculum to teach students with special needs and help their studios flourish.

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