Have you ever noticed how pupils are always keen to learn pieces their friends and peers are learning?

piano teaching resources

Several years ago I had a pupil who was about late elementary level (grade 1+). One week she came bounding into her lesson:

‘Sally, my cousin came to stay this weekend and she’s a really, really good pianist and she is learning this amazing piece and she has taught me how to play some it and can I play it to you and then can I learn the rest?’

The piece in question was the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. With a bit of help from me she learnt to play the first section of the piece quite competently and musically.


We know from our own experiences that we grow to love pieces the more we listen to them and study them. With familiarity comes a deepening understanding and connection with the piece. Research shows that with¬† primary/elementary aged pupils ‘repeated listening to leads to stronger acceptance or preference (at least initially).’ [1]

All of which made me wonder how we can ‘prime’ pupils to learn certain pieces? What happens if we present new repertoire in lessons in messy and creative ways before our pupil even knows that this might be a new piece to learn?

This week I am going to be messing around with The Stowaway by Stanley Wilson in ways that will ‘pre-frame’ the piece for the pupil. The Learning Target is for the student to: ‘listen to a piece with musical understanding and have some ability to be able to describe what s/he hears’.

The Stowaway is a recent discovery and I love it! It is found in a series called Ship Ahoy! and is one of the selected pieces in the latest ABRSM Grade 2 2017-18 syllabus.


Before I do anything it is time to sit down with a coffee and have a good look through the score – away from the piano.

For this either I use an analysis sheet (more on this whole area another week) or scribble on post it notes. Whichever way I choose there are certain key features to identify:

  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Structure
  • Key
  • Harmony
  • Technique
  • Mood and character
  • Background

To introduce the piece to a pupil I am going to focus on the key, time signature, articulation and dynamics (see the video below) and how these help to convey the mood and character.


The Stowaway was inspired by the traditional song Down Among The Deadmen by John Dyer. If you want to compare the original song have a quick look at this LINK. The song was thought to have been written in the early 18th century (or might be even older than that. Read the full entry in Wikipedia HERE).

I have to admit to being a bit ‘geeky’ about this sort of thing! I find it fascinating because (I think) it broadens and keeps me in touch my own musical development.

Despite the quiet dynamic markings this has a robust feel to it. The words I wrote down were:

mysterious, with quiet excitement, precision, on tiptoe, a feeling of contained danger, darkness, flickering lights

If I ever get stuck for words doing this sort of thing I will head straight for the Musical Adjectives Project which is a great resource for inspiration.


Once I have finished my coffee and my analysis it’s time to create or reuse some Listening Cards. CLICK HERE to download the Listening Cards created for the Stowaway.

Click on the video below and discover the steps I go through to introduce this to a pupil.


All this does take time I admit. However, it is worth it from both your own and your pupil’s perspective. Once I have developed a set of resources like this I will find the opportunity to use it, in a variety of ways, with as many as my students as possible, no matter what their level. For example for more advanced pupils the cadences could be the focus or singing back parts of the melody.

And how does this ‘messy’ introduction help the pupil? Well, in my experience most students ask to learn the piece!

Why not give it a go? We’d love to hear about how you get on!

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers

[1] CLICK HERE for a interesting article highlighting research into children’s listening




  1. lynda cowell

    Thanks for the great tips which I will use with any new pieces I introduce, I am trying to instil far more listening activities in my lessons now and find it fascinating what descriptive words some children say !

  2. Louise Harlow

    Love this blog – I need to do more listening activities with my pupils!

    PS. The link to the article about children’s listening doesn’t work.

    1. Sally

      Thanks Louise. The Yamspace webpage seems to be down at the moment although it was all fine yesterday! I’m going to leave it up and hope that it will get back up and running soon.

  3. Sylvia Niebper

    What a fabulous presentation! You are the master!
    Now I need to purchase this syllabus in addition to Canada’s RCM materials


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