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Piano Lessons: Theory and Christmas Music interwoven (Videos)

It’s that time of year to roll out the Christmas music if there’s to be a greater learning benefit than sight-reading through a slew of carols

In my Bay Area studios, I’ve assigned “The Little Drummer Boy,” (one of my favorites) along with a Major Scale and Chord Degree Name Sheet.

Might as well clip them together. (Why isolate a mundane theory exercise naming “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished” from the universe of living, breathing music?)


Lesson plan: Chord Sheet

Play though a one-octave C Major scale up and down.

Build chords on each degree
EAR TRAINING TIME… What is “Major,” “minor,” and “diminished?”

My students have had plenty of exposure to Five-finger positions, Major and Parallel minor, so they’ve had an ear-sensitizing jump start.

Knowing the content, in whole and half steps of MAJOR vs. minor, doubles on what the ear perceives. (Cognitive dimension)

Building chords, and playing through them not just as skips but evolving from steps through five notes is very valuable.

The affect or color of Major vs. minor has been “drummed” into most of my students early on as I converted their primer pieces in method books to the parallel minor by lowering the third. (No reason why the method book community can’t detox from MAJOR, MAJOR and more MAJOR in the fixed positions) Or become more CREATIVE!

Once my pupils have played chords on each C Major scale degree (1, 3, 5 for Right Hand) (5,3,1, Left Hand) separate hands, they come to chord Vii and “sense” a change or departure from Major and minor. That’s when we discover that lowering what would be a minor Vii by half step on the top note will create DIMINISHED.

What I do is add another third to the diminished chord and reveal the suspenseful, mysterious feeling attached. Add some pedal and we’re in a diminished altered state. (a seance, perhaps?)

Students readily appreciate the mood swing.

The next part of our exploration in prep for “Drummer Boy,” is labeling the TONIC, Sub-dominant and Dominant chords while PLAYING THEM, of course.

They have already explored EVERY chord on each scale degree identifying Major, Minor or diminished.

And yes, they note the labels are Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Sub-Dominant, Dominant, Sub-Mediant, Leading Tone, and Tonic.

But for this undertaking, I’ve focused on the Primary Chords, I, IV, V and I, having my students jump from I to V and back to I, and then I to IV and back to I.. Not starting with INVERSIONS, which of course make voice leading smoother.
“Drummer Boy” will have inversions of primary chords where necessary so this is not overlooked. I show how chords can be inverted.

(Scale practice should include inversion of chords) Some students have not found the time to add. But we’re working on it.

The one NEW ingredient of “Drummer Boy” that needs to be isolated and integrated into Chord exploration relates to building a DOMINANT on different chords other than what’s primary to the KEY played.

So I have had students count five notes up in G Major, for example and build a chord on its DOMINANT, remembering that G Major has an F#… So it’s Dominant chord is D F# A.. this can be further practiced in the keys of D and A.. etc. (I know the sophisticated label is SECONDARY dominant, but don’t choose that vocabulary in the infant stage of learning chords) The exposure to DOMINANTS of more than one key, however, will fill in the learning gap at one of the measures in “The Little Drummer Boy.” (When a dominant is imposed on the IV chord to flesh it out)

NEXT: Students are challenged to build chords on every scale degree of F Major (The key of “Little Drummer Boy”)
Yes, they’re transposing, but this is nothing new. Students who play five-finger positions and scales, have been transposing for months and years.

They then pick out the PRIMARY CHORDS in F Major..

Pupils, by the way, will not be excused from NOTATING chords in F MAJOR. That’s their ASSIGNMENT with plenty of space on the Chord Sheet to follow through during the week.

Finally, they apply their chord explorations to “Little Drummer Boy,” with lots more to consider in a layered-learning experience:

Voicing and chords or the harmonic dimension are two facets. (playing the soprano and alto lines separately, for example is recommended.)


All in all, this piece remains appealing because of its harmonic richness and drum-like, repeated bass pattern. In the last analysis, students love having an orchestra at their fingertips!

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