Directed practice – a guiding hand


Alan Hazeldine

As a student I had the good fortune to cross paths with Alan Hazeldine, an inspirational conductor and a generous teacher. In the year or so that I was accompanist to the North London Chorus [my first concert with them was Bach’s B minor mass] I learned a huge amount from him, but this single idea stands out above all else.

Alan held out his left hand, palm facing upwards:

In one ear, I have what I can hear at the moment, in rehearsal; and in the other ear [waving his right hand] I have what I want it to sound like. And all I am doing in rehearsal is matching up what I can hear with what I want to hear.

As he said this last sentence, he carefully put the palms of his hands together. So simple.

This is how I rehearse, be it choir or orchestra, but it is also how I practise. In fact, this is how I have always practised. I’m not sure whether I was ever taught to practise or whether it has just come instinctively, but many pupils do need guidance. Some need lots.

I suspect that one of the biggest problems with practice is that pupils lack the aural picture of “what they want it to sound like.” In Alan’s picture, they have their left palm held out, but have nothing to match it up to – in other words, their practice is aimless. If they can’t hear the goal – whether that be an evenness of tone, or even just the correct notes, how can they know what needs to be adjusted to improve their efforts?

This is a complex area. Many students hack their way through sight-reading without the faintest idea of what is going on around them. Why? Because they can’t hear what they are aiming at, so nothing that they play has any context; they can’t really tell whether it’s right or wrong. The solution: teach them to sight-sing, and then they will be able to hear what they see.  Then they will be able to match up what they play [left hand] with what they hear in their head [right hand].

I have inherited a pupil who struggles to read the dots on the page. He can read them, but he has developed other strategies to avoid doing so if he can help it! So when it comes to reading new music, the first stage needs to be for him to pick his way carefully through the score, and build for himself an aural picture of what the music sounds like; put another way, he first needs to create that right hand, so that in his subsequent practice he knows what he is aiming for.

These things take time, and we can undoubtedly find shortcuts. The easiest is to provide that right hand ourselves, to be in possession of what we know to be the goal, and to guide our student towards that. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with this strategy: what does the student do when we are not there? This method works fine in lessons, when indeed we can be fooled as we see their progress in front of our own eyes, but what about when they are practising alone? And what about when they move on?

My preference is not to find shortcuts, but to give them a hand in working out how to learn for themselves. It takes time and patience to teach our pupils how to direct their own learning rather than simply to follow our lead, but the rewards are so much more enduring.

Sight-reading hurdles

I have been working with a pupil recently on sight-reading, ahead of his forthcoming trumpet exam, and in particular I’ve been trying to encourage him to keep going at all costs. However, much as I have tried to persuade him to do this, I find that each time that he goes wrong, he stops to correct the mistakes. To his credit, his practice skills are pretty good; he is able to identify his own errors, and goes back to correct them. But try as I might to persuade him not to stop – to just keeping going – he can’t!

It has dawned on me that for much of the time we actually encourage our students to do the exact opposite, to stop in order to put things right; so is it any surprise that he does it in this context too?! After all, he’s just doing what I would usually ask the rest of the time – which is actually a good thing!

Charlie MaggsBut for a sight-reading test, we need a different approach. Don’t correct the mistakes! In fact, it’s not unlike running a hurdles race (although I need to stress that I speak with very little first hand experience!) In the hurdles the athletes quite often hit the barriers – sometimes they wobble, sometimes they fall over (the hurdles that is, hopefully not the athletes!) but what they never do is go back and have another go. They just keep going, sometimes leaving a trail of destruction behind them. It doesn’t matter – once the barrier has been hit, it’s too late to do anything about it, so they just keep running to the finish line. In some ways, it’s quite satisfying to make mistakes and then to almost literally run away from them!

And it’s the last bit – the idea that for once it’s actually correct to ignore the mistakes – which has made the difference with this pupil, and I think he has actually found it surprisingly liberating to be allowed to plough on without fear of recrimination! The ideal, of course, is that there are no mistakes, but failing that being allowed (or even encouraged) to ignore any mistakes has been quite …. fun!! Sssshh, don’t tell anyone!! ;)

Musical Glue

kristyI am delighted to publish my first ever guest post, by Kristy Swift. A natural teacher if ever I met one, Kristy has such a delightfully inquisitive approach to learning, both for herself and for her pupils.

T-Rexes and Musical Glue

Like most kids, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I spent hours in my Dad’s workshop, building model T-Rex skeletons from hobby kits. Assembling the “bones” was fun, but it was no use building T-Rexes if they were only going to collapse again. Once I had everything in position, I needed to keep it there.

A quick trip to the hardware store usually solved the problem. There were many adhesives available, but the best one came in two tubes. It was fun to squeeze each ingredient onto a piece of card, stirring them with a toothpick to cause a chemical reaction. This created something stronger than the original parts; something that would really stick.

I didn’t grow up to become a palaeontologist, though. I fell in love with music instead. However, I often think of those model T-Rexes, because musical concepts are a lot like those fiddly T-Rex bones. You need exactly the right mental glue to make them stick, and you create the best glue by combining several ingredients.

I recently met someone with an incredible recipe for “musical glue”. His name is Paul Harris, and he teaches so proactively that every moment of the lesson becomes fun, achievable, and likely to stay in the student’s memory. Earlier this year, he spoke at Faber Music in London and generously shared his methods.

Paul’s website maintains that teaching music is “incontestably, one of the most fascinating and stimulating of all professions.” His multi-layered approach replaces the master-apprentice model (“Let me tell you what’s wrong with you”), with something more collaborative and fun (“Let’s break this into achievable components and enjoy all of them”).

What are these achievable components, then? If a piece is sight-readable, it just means we’re familiar enough with its patterns to perform it without much rehearsal. What if we used this concept of “pattern-familiarity” as the basis for all of our teaching? We could immerse students in the patterns of any given piece, before they see the piece itself. If we explore the patterns in a variety of ways, they will stick like glue.

“Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light…”

I decided to try Paul’s approach with one of my vocal students. This particular girl needed a piece for her Grade 7 ABRSM exam. Given her sensitive and expressive nature, I thought she might appreciate Bellini’s Vaga luna che inargenti (Lovely Moon, Shedding Silver Light). The song is filled with unrequited longing, like a mini operatic aria. However, the Italian text is sometimes a stumbling block, particularly in combination with Bellini’s syncopated rhythms. Nevertheless, the song’s touching spirit more than justifies those challenges.

We began our warm-up by exploring different vocal colours. I asked, “What is the effect of singing on Ah, Eh, Ee, Oh and Oo? Which one makes a tone that you would call ‘silvery?’ What kinds of pieces might need a silvery timbre?”

Another section of her warm-up included the exact kind of syncopation used by Bellini in the song: firstly, we played with it as “call and response” patterns, and then as a melodic improvisation around the given rhythmic pattern.

The next step was an exploration of how various composers express “moonlight” in their music. (Renée Fleming has an entire album called Night Songs, and of course there’s the eponymous Beethoven sonata!) Let’s not forget Romantic literature, either. I asked some more questions: “How many times have you studied a poem that draws on an element of nature? Quite a few? Fantastic… what does the moon symbolise? Ah… emotional themes. Secrets, unrequited love and loneliness, perhaps? Which movies have you seen that have those elements?”

I was delighted that she had something other than Twilight to discuss here, but I would have accepted Twilight if need be! It’s also worth noting that this conversation took less than three minutes. Completely worth it in terms of the curiosity it piqued. At this point, I took the Bellini book from the top of the piano, and began to open it. My student almost dragged it from my hands. A win for Bellini! Evidently, this kind of lesson plan beats the “sing these dots in order, fail, and let me tell you how you went wrong” model.

Paul Harris, thank you!

Do you like Strawberry Jam?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is “all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without knowing quite why we know it,” when we rely on instinct rather than our ability to reason. Gladwell is a persuasive writer and I find him compelling. He draws on a huge variety of examples in this book, but nevertheless I was quite surprised when I suddenly found the topic turning to strawberry jam!

In short, jam experts were asked to rank forty-four different jams, and then a group of college students were asked to do the same. How close would their results be? To cut a short story even shorter, quite close it seems: “Even those of us who aren’t jam experts know good jam when we taste it.” But then they asked the students to give reasons for prefering one jam to another. Disaster. “It’s simply that we don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about jam” says Gladwell.

So, how comfortable would you be in describing the texture of jam, or it’s colour intensity, lumpiness or shine?  Food experts can be required to describe as many as ninety categories and sub-categories, each on a 15-point scale! The point is well made – we need vocabulary and huge expertise to be able to do this.

jamNow I’d forgive you for thinking you’d accidentally stumbled across jam@monkton, so I’ll spare you any more detail (you could read Blink yourself, of course.) But here’s my point: how do we teach musicianship? “Even those of us who aren’t trained musicians know a good performance when we hear one.” But teaching musicianship is an altogether different matter. In order to teach it, we need to be able to break down the ‘ingredients’ [reference to jam entirely intentional, Paul Harris suddenly makes even more sense!] so that we can describe to our pupils, accurately, how the music works. Texture, form, structure, harmonic rate, lumpiness, melodic shape….. everything. And as the experts – teachers are experts aren’t they? – surely we should have all of this vocabulary to hand, otherwise aren’t we reduced to the ranks of someone who just knows which jam they prefer? And then, don’t forget, it’s not just the teacher who needs to be familiar with this vocabulary and able to use it – the pupil needs to understand it too. Teacher and pupil need to be conversing continually in the vocabulary of musicians. Anything less, and we’re not really getting any nearer to teaching musicianship. Perhaps just tasting it.

If there is a book, Strawberry Jam – the definitive guide, for jam enthusiasts who really want to know how to move from knowing what they like, to knowing why they like what they like, then I suspect it’s very similar to Paul Harris’ new book, Simultaneous Learning (also, funnily enough, subtitled ‘the definitive guide‘) which teaches music teachers how to teach musicianship. It isn’t enough to be a brilliant musician, and ‘knowing something without knowing quite why we know it’ is not actually going to help our pupils. What I love about Paul’s teaching philosophy is not just how positive it is, for pupil and teacher alike, but that at the same time there is a constant focus on what makes music work. After all, if our pupil can play the right notes but has no idea really how to describe what is happening, is she any the wiser?

The emphasis is on the teacher leading this process, which means that the teacher needs to be thinking about these things too, rather than just knowing them. I find that really exciting; it’s not only about me teaching the pupil, although that is, of course, important! It’s about me learning, all the time, how to translate something which I just know into something which my pupils can understand too.

SingTrue – a brilliant new app

As I’ve said before, I have come to the conclusion that there are three things which are vital in order to be able to sing well. These are:

critical listening [ears]

good breathing [voice]

confidence [mind]

Last term I took on the challenge of teaching a young member of our sports staff to sing. She revealed over lunch one day that not only could she not sing, but that she was terrified of singing. I found this hard to believe – she seemed like the confident type to me! So it was with great surprise, when she came for her first lesson, that I discovered that she really was completely traumatized even by the prospect of singing, to the point where she was reduced to a quivering wreck. Genuinely so. I won’t forget that lesson, ever.

singtrue2Over the coming weeks we coined the term ‘humming lessons’! It quickly became apparent that our main difficulty was simply going to be able to get her to make any sound at all, never mind dealing with any pitching issues. And when, eventually, she managed to hum a note, it became clear that her ability to pitch was as bad as I’ve ever encountered (that’s bad, by the way). Wow, what a project!

On the whole, without practice things don’t get better. Using a knife and fork is tricky at first. And if as a trumpet player your tone is a little rough, it doesn’t actually get any better unless you practise regularly. And if you haven’t sung for the best part of *15 years since being publically humilated in front of the rest of the class in Year Five, you won’t have had much practice at pitching notes accurately.

Several months ago I was contacted by Christopher Sutton from, who was planning on designing an app to help people to sing. He had encountered our Choir who can’t sing project on my blog, and wanted to tap into my experience. I had my doubts; after all, probably the biggest part of this whole initiative depends on me! The whole confidence thing is tackled by me getting alongside each individual and saying ‘Come on, I believe you can do this!
targetEnter SingTrue, launched next week for iPhone/iPad, and in a word, brilliant! No surprise that there are three modules – ears, voice, mind. I have been amazed (and flattered) to see so many of my little teaching tricks – and those of others too – incorporated into this clever piece of software. I’ve been been playing with the app for the last few days (official release date 21 October) but it has suddenly dawned on me that there is one potentially huge problem with my teaching; me! I’m there, in the room, with my pupil. And therefore the whole confidence element is a problem. In many instances it’s not insurmountable, and in fact most boys just get on with it. Girls generally find this more difficult though, and in the case of this pupil, I realise now that I was getting in the way! I think this is a great app. I wouldn’t want to be replaced by an app, but it does allow those who’ve had no practice to have a go, without fear of being heard by anyone – however encouraging their teacher might try to be.

*Insert your own number if this story sounds all too familiar. Sadly, I often encounter people, many in their forties or fifties, who have never sung because they were told as a child that they couldn’t. And so they haven’t :(

Why is a piano like a calculator?

Well, if you press the right keys it will give you the right answer. [That’s not a joke by the way – I hope I’m funnier than that!]

The fact is, a calculator is a really handy bit of kit, but quite often we can find ourselves using it to add up stuff which we could readily do in our heads, but frankly it’s just easier to get the calculator to take the strain from our brain.

It’s the same with sight-singing. Asked to sing a major third above a given note, it’s all too easy to say that’s too difficult to work out and reach for the piano. But I think we can work it out. It’s like mental arithmetic. In order to do this we need to do a few sums in our head using our inner hearing. Perhaps I imagine singing a major scale to myself and stop on the third note.  Or maybe I sing the first two notes of ‘While shepherds watched’, knowing that this also makes a major third.

I sometimes wonderKeyboard Keys Close Up whether children think that pitching notes is some sort of unfathomable mystery! How should I know where that note is? Well in maths we have systems for working things out, which we are hopefully taught from an early age, and which we then have drummed into us for years to come. 12 x 3 = 36. I happen to know that one now, but if I do forget it I have various strategies for working it out; on my fingers maybe [I call that Mostyn maths, but that’s another story], or in columns on a piece of paper or visualised in my head. So when I ask someone to sing the A above middle C, I’m not just expecting them to pluck it out of the air. Someone with perfect pitch can. Or else someone who knows their theory knows that C up to A is a major 6th, and remembers that’s the tune to ‘The day thou gavest’ – they can do pitch it too. Or someone who can sing up the major scale, rather like moving up successive positions on a number line; they can find it too.

But someone who has only ‘worked it out’ by playing the A on the piano and then singing it, what of them? Well they didn’t work it out. They cheated! They used a calculator in the non-calculator paper!

Mental arithmetic takes practice, and as a core subject our pupils spend a great deal of time each week crunching numbers in some form or other. Hopefully in their heads, which encourages them to develop their skills of retaining and retrieving information, which is of course a transferable skill. In contrast, how much time do our musicians spend doing the equivalent mental ‘arithmetic’, developing their inner hearing skills? Our instruments, be it flute, piano or guitar, need technical mastery of course, but I think we need to be wary of spending all of our time ‘tapping in the data’ and enjoying the instant answers, and perhaps need to spend more time working on the real stuff.


Learning to sing, one step at a time

One of the things which I have found time and time again with people who can’t sing is that you really can’t take for granted that they understand how up and down works! More specifically, getting them to sing the correct note back is one thing, but then we get to the really tricky bit – how far is down?!

I have a new ‘project’ this term, a sixth former who wants to learn to sing. I heard her early last term, and at that point she was having real difficulty in singing back a note even remotely close to what I had sung to her. However, in just ten minutes she made huge progress, taking on board the three things which appear to me to be so vital – critical listening, good breath support and confidence. So what impressed me immediately when I saw her this Friday was that she had clearly mulled these things over since the summer, to the extent that she was generally able to sing back a random selection of single notes pretty accurately. A bit out of tune perhaps, but close enough for the moment!

Having established F (above middle C) as her ‘go to’ note, I set out to extend this down the scale from soh to doh. So I asked her to sing down a ‘step’. [Remember, her pitching is still unreliable.] I sang her an E flat, and she sang me …. a middle C. A perfect fourth down – that’s miles out!

The trouble is, she doesn’t know how far a ‘step’ is. If the scale is seen as a ladder, she clearly has no idea how far apart the rungs are! It might appear extraordinary, but for those who struggle, we simply can’t assume that they know how the scale works. ‘Down a step’ is a vague concept, as vague as asking someone to move ‘one’ to their left. One what? One inch? One metre?

After a little more ‘calibration’ we eventually managed to start singing down five note scales – soh, fa, mi, re, doh. And here’s the interesting bit; although she now had a pretty good feel for how far a ‘step’ was, she still ended up too low by the time she reached the bottom of the scale. And the reason why? Because there is a semitone between fa and mi.


What sensible scale, outside the realms of music, has a different distance between two points in an otherwise equal pattern?! Crazy! So actually, despite her lack of experience, I found myself admiring the combination of her logic and her new-found pitching skills. And once I’d pointed out that, for some strange reason, one of the ‘rungs’ in the major scale is smaller than the others, she quickly grasped the concept and her five note scales dropped rather beautifully into place.

How many young instrumentalists play scales and remain completely unaware of this strange phenomenon of tones and semitones? Quite a lot at a guess – they don’t need to know, because their instrument does the hard work for them. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s quite ironic that my new student, equipped with this little piece of knowledge, is beginning to make fantastic progress with her aural skills, and in some ways might already be seen as ahead of the game.