Playing Piano for Teaching

Weekly Teaching Tip – April 21, 2014
by John Henny

I assume everyone reading this has some piano skills, with at least being able to play scales for vocalizing students.

I want to encourage everyone to expand their playing capabilities to being able to give basic accompaniment for students.

Just Say No to Karaoke

The easy availability of karaoke tracks on YouTube and Spotify have been a boon for teachers and singers. I use these tracks as well, but they have their limitations. The biggest problem is focusing on certain problem parts of a song. The time it takes to go back and find the right place in the track is time that could be better spent working on the song.

Being able to provide simple piano accompaniment allows the teacher to not only quickly focus on the appropriate part of the song, but to quickly change keys and tempo if needed.

All it takes is a knowledge of basic chords, scales and keys. I will give you the way I show students to start quickly playing piano for themselves (a special thanks to the brilliant pianist and voice teacher Rachael Lawrence for her help with this).

Give Me Five

Let’s start by learning all of your Major and Minor chords.

The formula we are going to use on the piano is this: Whole-whole-half-whole. This means 2 whole steps, one half step and then another whole step.

Place your thumb on Middle C. Play the first 5 notes of the C scale with each successive finger (thumb, index, middle, ring, pinky). You will notice the intervals you played are a whole step, whole step, half step, whole step. You can use this formula to find the first 5 notes of any key.

Keeping your hand in this position, play the notes under your thumb, middle and pinky. This will be a C Major chord (C,E,G). Now drop your middle finger a half-step to the note immediately below (this will be the black key, Eb). This will give you a C Minor chord.

Do this in every key of the piano. Find and play the first 5 notes of the piano (using the formula) and then play the Major and Minor chords. Soon you will be able to play any Major or Minor triad (they are called “triads” because these chords have 3 notes).

Start Playing Songs

Go to and enter a song you like. Then see if you can play the chords it gives you. Try playing along with the song, playing just the root with your left hand and the triad in your right. Alternate your hands like a drummer to create rhythmic parts.

7th Heaven

The next most common chord types are 7th chords. These now include the 7th degree of the scale. They are actually easy to find.

Play your C Major chord again and add the C an octave above with your pinky. Now drop your pinky a half-step to the note B, just below it. This 4 note chord is CMaj7.

Now drop your pinky another half-step to the black key Bb. This is C7 (also called a Dominant 7, for reasons we won’t get into here). See how this chord wants to move somewhere and feels restless? This is a very important type of chord for songwriters. The 7th of this chord is 2 half-steps below the tonic note of the chord, so a D7 would have a C as the 7th, as opposed to a DMaj7 which would only be a half-step below or a C#.

The next common chord is a Minor 7. Play your C7 (the dominant 7th, or 2 half-steps down with your pinky) and drop your middle finger a half-step to the black key Eb. It will usually be written like this: Cm7. The lower case “m” denotes a minor chord.

Now play the Maj7th, 7th (dominant 7th), and the Minor 7th in every key.

Get a piece of sheet music (with the guitar chords written above) for a favorite musical theatre piece (this will likely have lots of 7th chords). Begin playing all the chords in the piece.

You may see some chords that have other numbers in them, like 13, #11. Other chords may say Aug or Dim. These are more rare than the chords you have learned (especially in pop music) and can be ignored for the moment.

Next Steps

If you have mastered these basic chords, you can begin to create simple accompaniments for a great many songs.

The next steps to improving your piano playing are learning about inversions and the other types of chords I mentioned. These chords are rare in pop but more common in musical theatre and very common in jazz.

With a bit of work you can quickly become a more effective voice teacher. Once you can accompany students you’ll wonder how you managed lessons before.

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