In the Piano Adventures Level One lesson book is the great American standard L’il Liza Jane. It contains the classic syncopated rhythm syncopa. This is usually written as quaver crotchet quaver but since the Level 1 books haven’t yet introduced quavers, it’s written as crotchet minim crotchet.
I love this rhythm and it crops up again and again so I want to teach it effectively. I believe it’s important to experience the rhythm first, before showing students how it is notated. I suspect the Piano Adventures authors feel the same way. I suspect that every child in America is extremely familiar with this song. However, in the UK, not so much!
So my hunt began. I needed a song that UK children know really well, that also contains the same rhythmic motif. Then I remembered Five Little Speckled Frogs.
This song is perfect. Most young children know it, as they sing it regularly at playgroups, nurseries and early years music classes. For those who don’t know it, it’s also a counting song (we lose a frog each verse until there are no little speckled frogs left!). The benefits of this type of song are that we get 5 repeats without the children losing interest. So any children not totally certain before, certainly will be after they’ve counted down from five to none! Another benefit is that each of the six lines starts with the syncopa rhythm!
So how to teach it?
1 – Sing it! Sing it to the student with one hand showing the five frogs, sitting on your other hand, which is the log! Here are the lyrics to jog your memory.
Five little speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log
Eating some most delicious grubs, yum yum
One jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool
Then there were four green speckled frogs, glub glub
Four little speckled frogs etc…
Or you can hear it here
2 – Hopefully the student has joined in at some point during the song. If not, ask them to sing it with you or on their own if they seem confident.
3 – Ask them to focus on the first line. Can they clap the rhythm of the first line? Perhaps with you if necessary. Talk about the first half being quite jazzy and we call it syncopa.
4 – Next I will move off the bench and sit on the carpet if available. I pull out four flashcards with a variety of rhythms, including syncopa of course! Can they clap the rhythms? Allow them to choose which ones to clap. They will invariably leave syncopa until last, as it is least familiar. Can they identify which if the rhythms matches the jazzy start to the song? To download the flash cards click Rhythm Flash Cards – Syncopa.
5 – We can then have some fun choosing which two flashcards makes the rhythm from the first line. We can clap it, we can sing it, we can tap it, we can speak it with syncopa ta ta ta-a. As many different ways as possible to map the rhythm experience of the song with the visual representation.
6 – Depending on the maturity of the student I might now explain the term syncopation and how it describes a rhythm where the emphasis is on the off beat. I take the flash card with four crotchets and discuss which of the four beats are strong and which are weaker. Then we place it above each of the other three flash cards and decide which of them are syncopated. Only syncopa of course!
7 – Next I bring out the score for Five Little Speckled Frogs. I’ve written it in a very simple way. Two handed, five finger position with no hand movements, melody only. Students at Level 1 of Piano Adventures should have no trouble with the pitch recognition so all of their concentration can focus on the rhythm. Hopefully with all this preparation they will be able to play it quite easily.
8 – Finally, out comes the Piano Adventures book and they can find the syncopa rhythm in L’il Liza Jane. You can put the syncopa flash card up on the music stand for them to match if they are having trouble.
With careful practice (which I know all our students do!) they should be able to learn L’il Liza Jane fairly independently.
Here is my arranged score for Five Little Speckled Frogs. You are welcome to use it for your own students.