Why chopsticks are more than just a handy eating utensil

Why chopsticks are more than just a handy eating utensil


One of the ways that I always stress that teachers can most easily and effectively build rapport with students and start creating a lasting relationship is by meeting them where they are at and finding out what new students can already do.

This means that when you start a new student, the most important question you can ask them is:

What can you play?

Why is this so important?

Because it shows that you respect the child, that you value their musicality and that you’re interested in them. Perhaps all they’ll be able to play is Mary Had a Little Lamb. Perhaps you’ll find out that they can already play at a pretty decent level and have excellent rhythm. Perhaps you’ll find out that they can already read music!

You never know until you ask and it’s a great way to diagnose where they are at.

So next time you start a new student, just ask them:

What can you play? or I’d love to hear you play something!

My Recent Chopsticks Experience

I started teaching an 8-year old beginner this year.

When I asked him to play me something, he excitedly started playing the upper part of the tune most of us know as “Chopsticks“. Here’s a copy of the music for solo student.

What would be your first reaction?

I’m guessing many teachers would groan inwardly and say something like, “That’s nice, do you know anything else?”. Or maybe even stop them halfway through and say, “OK, let’s move along now”.

How sad! What a missed opportunity!

What is Chopsticks? (Or What are Chopsticks?)

Much maligned in piano teaching, the ubiquitous “Chopsticks” can actually be a really useful teaching tool.

Let me show you just how valuable something simple like this can be as a teaching experience. Before I do that, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page when we’re talking about Chopsticks.

I must say that before writing this article, I had no idea about the background of this tune:

Chopsticks” (original name “The Celebrated Chop Waltz“) is a simple, widely-known waltz for the piano. It was written in 1877 by the British composer Euphemia Allen under the pseudonym Arthur de Lulli.[1] Allen, whose brother was a music publisher, was supposedly only sixteen when she composed the piece, with arrangements for solo and duet. The title Chop Waltz comes from Allen’s specification that the melody be played in two-part harmony with both hands held in a vertical orientation, little fingers down and palms facing each other, striking the keys with a chopping motion. – Wikipedia

The term “Chopsticks” has now become synonymous with any simple ditty that students can quickly learn on the piano by ear/rote.

This tends to include, Heart and Soul:

and the “Knuckle Song” (is that really it’s name?) – complete with giggling baby:

What I did with my student

So you’re probably wondering what I actually did after my student played this to me?

Well, first thing I did was play along with the chords you’ll need: G and C. I play with left hand playing octave Gs on beat one and then right hand G chords on beats 2 + 3 (and then the same in C) to suit the waltz feel.

That way we were already making music together and I could see and hear how he plays. I could assess his finger and hand position and I could get a sense of his musicality – is he keeping time, is he listening to me, etc.

The next thing I did was ask him where he learnt it.

“Dad taught me”

“So your Dad plays piano?”

“Not really, be he knows a few things.”

“Does your Dad play along while you play like I just did?”


Great! Now I know that this student’s father enjoys music and has sat down at the piano with him and started teaching him.

Brilliant! I Know that I’ll have at least one supportive parent.

So then I decided to teach him the chords so he could accompany his Dad playing the melody.

I introduced him to the idea of chords on piano, got him to play the C and G chords (he couldn’t easily use fingers 1-3-5 so we used whatever was simplest for him in the RH: 1-2-4) and then showed him the LH (single notes).

We then got off the bench and moved around in 3/4 time to get a feeling for the pulse. We stepped with L and R feet on beats one and clapped beats 2 and 3. We moved around the room. We chanted. We hummed the tune. We sat back at the piano and tapped hands on knees: LH on beat 1 and RH on beats 2 + 3 just like he would need to do when playing.

Then we practised moving the RH to the different chord positions. We tried tapping one hand while playing the other (slowly). Then we tried both hands slowly and I eventually I played along.

His homework? Practice the accompaniment and get Dad to play along!

It was rough in the lesson, but what a heap of musical fun we had!

We covered meter, melody, rhythm and chords and all with a simple little piece of music which most teachers happily write-off.

Sure enough, by the following week, he could play it very easily and was ready to try out the Heart and Soul chords.

Why is this valuable learning?

I’m very supportive of learning things by ear and rote for any piano students at all times during their education.

Working on music that students already know is a great benefit and it doesn’t have to be anything modern. Pieces like this will forever be fun and simple to play.

Great for quick wins.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to wait for a student to bring you one of these pieces. They are great ideas for a break from traditional routine, or a fun way to start a new lesson.

Want some more ideas about building on these themes? Check out my ideas for creativity below.

Ideas for creativity

Heart and Soul

This is a brilliant tune for improvising on the white keys. Try using a pentatonic scale in C: C-D-E-G-A and get students to improvise while you play.

Then teach the students the accompaniment so that you can swap roles and each have a turn.

Here’s how my great friend and Inner Circle Expert, Leila Viss, explains how she uses Heart and Soul for beginners:

Early students may need to break it down some. First play the bass line with the left hand and ask the pianist to sound it out. Guide them by starting on C, down a skip, down a skip up a step. Once they catch on, ask them to play open 5ths on each key in the LH. Then teach the RH, and begin work playing hands together. Next, add the middle note. The time is now ripe to introduce the words “chord” and then “triad”–a chord with 3 pitches (like TRIangle, TRIcycle…). Show students how to play “double double” in each hand with a slight swing. Watch the smile appear on their face once they realize they are playing “Heart and Soul”.

You can read more about creative uses of Heart and Soul from Leila in these two great blog posts:

Here’s Leila getting creative with one of her students:

Knuckle Song

Take the “Knuckle Song” for instance. Because it’s in Gb, a simple accompaniment can provide a huge springboard for students to improvise on the black keys.

Something like this (sorry – I would have recorded these myself except I’m in a hotel room in San Antonio for MTNA!) can work well as a accompaniment for just about anything on the black keys.

Move your accompaniment to Eb minor and do something slower and watch how your student’s improvising changes to match the new tonality.


There is just so much potential for exploration in these “Chopsticks” songs.

Because they are simple, students can pick them up fast. Most of them will know them already, so they’ll be using their ears. They involve duet playing which is great for listening and rhythm.

Don’t miss out on the chance to build rapport and encourage your students to get creative.

Relish the Chopsticks at your next lesson.

Know other good rote pieces?

What other pieces work like this for you in lessons? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. how about the One Note Samba? Just the A section, lol!

  2. Seconding the Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater on the black keys as another idea here. It’s the first thing one of my newest students played at her first official lesson.

    I’m absolutely using this to shake things up this week. Heart and Soul in particular is perfect for where I’m at for chord progressions with a few folks, and I just had a blast with a little 5 year old friend on Chopsticks. His ability to recognize patterns blew my mind today!

  3. Confession time: Chopsticks and Heart & Soul are known as “the forbidden songs” in my studio. I’ve never had a new student play it for me in their first lesson, but they all inevitably want to play both of them for me.

    I’ve had several ask if there was any way I’d change my mind. I told them if they can come up with a good musical lesson revolving around the piece I’d be willing to allow it. So far no one has brought anything to me and a little part of me is hoping none of them see this post 🙂

    • Hahaha! So did I at least get you thinking?? ps. thanks for being so honest.

      • Yes, you definitely did.

  4. What a great reminder, Tim, especially as we all start new beginners at camps this summer! I’m afraid I actually groan outwardly when hearing these pieces. Time for me to put on my poker face and embrace the opportunities!

    • Yup – no groaning allowed. Go with the flow and see what happens 🙂

  5. Oh my, that video brought back some memories! Thanks for combining all of these terrific tunes in one place. Bravo! Love your open approach as do your students, I’m sure.

    • Thanks Leila – There are so many more versions… one of my kids played another version of the knuckle song yesterday I’ll have to add!

      • I always teach by rote, as many songs as I can get my hands on, until students can learn to read and memorize on their own, or forever, whichever comes first.
        You can teach the Gigue from the B flat Partita mostly by rote, Rachmaninoff’s C# minor prelude, lots of Schubert, lots of Albeniz. In the early years of course chopsticks and heart and soul and the knuckle song and Peter-Peter and tons of stuff by Robert Vandall and lots of Jon George and odds and ends from all over. There is nothing like rote pieces to help students play well and confidently, without getting involved with notation. Since the best playing by the best artists is from memory, why not start there with students?
        Of course, it isn’t easy to teach this way, or everyone would be doing it. It takes skill and planning and experience and lots of knowledge of piano playing.

        • Some of those pieces must take AGES to learn by rote. I guess I only choose simple, repetitive pieces as I don’t want to spend too long on them 🙂

          • You don’t teach them to six-year-olds. You have to work up to them over the years. And they don’t take any longer by rote than otherwise, if you’re looking for a finished product. And it’s importent to spend plenty of time on pieces that do certain things. After all, how many years have I been coming back to the Beethoven 4th?

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